Review of the Day: The Opposite
I don’t suppose every picture book author gets to have a blurb on his book by Stephen Fry. Then again I don’t suppose every picture book author is a writer for the new “Dr. Who” series on television, now are they? Children’s books of the British persuasion lap against our Yankee shores fairly often, but by and large they tend to be of the chapter book persuasion. Americans are perfectly happy with the occasional Quentin Blake and John Birmingham, but we don’t see as many English works of picture book fiction as often as we might like. Credit little Peachtree Publishers then with having the wherewithal to appreciate this tale, "The Opposite" for its gentle perversity and then dangle it before our own tiny tots’ eyes. Like a meeting of Edward Gorey and Shel Silverstein, MacRae’s book tells the tale of a boy, an Opposite, and the trouble that comes when one meets another.
When Nate wakes up one day, he finds that he is not entirely alone in his bedroom. Hanging from the ceiling like a reject from “Yellow Submarine” is a pointy-nosed Opposite. When the boy tells his dad than there’s an Opposite on the ceiling, however, the opposite happens and it isn’t there anymore. When Nate goes to breakfast he’s usually very good at pouring the milk. Today, though, The Opposite happens again and milk goes everywhere. And you can imagine what happens to Nate at school when he tries to paint. But our Nate is a clever boy, and with a bit of thinking he figures out exactly how to defeat this wily foe at its own game once and for all.
There’s something comforting about reading about a boy who is of the rational straightforward variety. English children’s book characters, whether they are Alice or Paddington, sometimes have a sensible self-aware nature that is instantly appealing to child readers. Whether it’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” or “The Wind In the Willows”, there’s a kind of national calm to certain British creations. Nate is no different. Obviously having to share your space with a mischievous Opposite would be a bit upsetting to a lad. Nate carries on heroically, however, until the moment when all becomes clear and he realizes his enemy’s Achilles heel. You might fear that a TV writer like MacRae would, like so many authors that transition into children’s literature, turn out to be a less than stellar addition to picture book circles. In fact, he’s brilliant. It’s as if he’s tapped into his nation’s brand of storytelling and rather than do something overly familiar or done, he’s instead brought us a kind of original and gentle delight.
Spanish resident and illustrator Elena Odriozola, for her part, brings a wide-eyed manic sensibility to MacRae’s remarkable little tale. The endpapers of this book are views of the cowled Opposite in a variety of different poses and forms against a backdrop of what appear to be red mums. Open the book further and on the publication page stands Nate staring ruefully at a trail of red flower pedals. Underneath the title traipses the Opposite, pedals falling in its wake, and a googly-eyed smile plastered on its face. In the book itself, this same Opposite is like a kind of trickster spirit, trying successfully to bug Nate and Nate alone. It changes color according to where it’s hiding at any given time, and its long pointed nose almost reminds you of Punch from the old Punch and Judy puppet shows. It’s just that kind of character. Odriozola has a way with patterns and simple pen and ink lines that works brilliantly with MacRae’s story.
When I was a child I used to watch a lot of an old television show called “Pinwheel” on early Nickelodeon television. “Pinwheel” was notable primarily for the cartoons and shorts from the foreign countries it managed to work into its programs. Most of these had a gentle feel that sometimes, when the stars align correctly, can be found in picture books if the reader is lucky. And that same luck can be found in “The Opposite”. Simultaneously charming and memorable, it’s bound to be one of those picture book secrets that only a select few discover on their own. Be grateful then, for now you are one of the few too.