Review of the Day: Probuditi!
Probuditi! by Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin. $18.95
“It rhymes with nudity”, a cheery woman told me as I asked how to pronounce the title of Chris Van Allsburg’s newest. And odd as it may sound, I’ve never had a problem remembering the title since (though I will, on occasion, refer to it as the Rhymes With Nudity book now and then). Though he’s brought us everything from a memoryless Jack Frost and flying nuns to illicit figs and living coloring book pages, Chris Van Allsburg has always created books with white characters in white situations. Now with “Probuditi!” he creates his very first African-American protagonists and plops them into the heart of white America’s nostalgia-era. The result is a book that makes some peculiar choices at key moments, though Van Allsburg's plot and illustrations are as top notch as ever. If you happen to be in a children’s literature university course and you need a book that would be a suitably hot topic for discussion, “Probuditi!” has enough implications and unknowing offense to give you enough fodder for several days’ worth of discussions.
Calvin is your typical nasty older brother. When he isn’t putting rubber spiders in his sister’s bed he’s conjuring up mischief with his best friend Rodney. Today, however, is Calvin’s birthday and he’s determined to celebrate it to the hilt. That means using his birthday tickets to see the great Lomax the Magnificent hypnotize innocent audience members, only to snap them out of it with the magic word, “Probuditi!” And that’s when Calvin and Rodney get an idea. Putting together a makeshift hypnotizing machine, the two convince poor little Trudy that she’s a dog. What seems to be a good bit of tomfoolery at first, however, turns into a nightmare. Trudy’s perfectly content as a dog, and as the time comes for Calvin’s mom to return home, the boys find they can’t remember the magic word to snap Trudy out of her canine state. By the end of the day, Trudy’s no longer a pup but Calvin is in some serious trouble. He still thinks it’s worth it, however, until Trudy lets slip that she may or may not have had a hand in giving her brother his most memorable birthday punishment yet.
Drawn with his characteristic realism, Van Allsburg’s book is a sepia-washed beauty right from the start. Every wrinkle of fabric or curl on Calvin’s mother’s head is as beautifully rendered as you might expect. Expressions and emotions are also presented with the artist’s regular brilliance. When Calvin uses his birthday tickets to invite his friend Rodney to see Lomax the Magnificent rather than his little sister, there’s an image of Trudy from the back, gripping her glass of milk in a determined fashion, foreshadowing her secret at the end of the book. As a child, I always loved best those picture books that looked real to me in some way. I am sure I would have loved “Probuditi!” Yet reading it as an adult, I found something disturbing at the book's core and worth noting as well.
As with any white author/illustrator who wishes to portray African-American characters, Van Allsburg should have been careful right from the start. Yet the author’s choices in “Probuditi!” are anything but simple. First of all, the book is clearly set in what appears to be the 1940 or 50s. Anyone with even the slightest sense of history will recognize this as a time period fairly rife with a shifting sense of race relations. Rather than acknowledge this (or has he?) Calvin is best friends with a bespectacled white boy and the two are pictured sitting together on a bus in front of several white passengers. Okay, I’ll even buy that much. Van Allsburg isn’t interested in making a book that speaks to American history, and maybe he wouldn’t have had to, were it not for a single disturbing image. You see, when Calvin and Rodney “hypnotize” Trudy and turn her into a dog, there’s a picture of her on all fours lapping out of a bowl. It’s a hard picture to look at, frankly. So the question is this: Have we progressed so far in America that it is now just hunky-dory for a white man to draw a picture of a little black girl drinking water on all fours on the ground like a dog? Obviously some people will say I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. And really, I’d like to be. But I can see through Amazon that I wasn’t the only person who had problems with this picture in the book and I doubt I'll be the last.
For a while my husband and I tried to turn the book into a metaphor for the black experience in the 50s. Okay, so you’ve got your African-Americans fooling people into thinking they’ve been successfully hypnotized into obedience, only to prove in the end (whatever that might be) that they were in their right minds all along? Does that work? No, of course it doesn’t. Van Allsburg probably could have set this entire story in the present (there are still hypnotists around, you know) and avoided a lot of these problems. Even if he’d just left that image of Trudy on all fours out, it could have worked. Instead he’s complicated everything. Even if you believe me to be reading too much into what is essentially a children’s book, consider the cover image Houghton Mifflin chose. By all logic the cover should be of the main characters, right? I mean, the woman looking like she’s a chicken is awesome, but she’s not even a real character in this story. So did they put Trudy as a dog on the cover? No they did not. And I can’t help but think that there might have been a reason for that. They may argue that that picture of Trudy as bowl-drinking doggie isn’t offensive, but I’d wager they’d know enough not to make it a promotional image either.
Or maybe I’m just being silly. Still, the book’s a tough sell. It feels like a Van Allsburg title that didn’t take into consideration the implications of the author’s content. Obviously it’s physically beautiful and the twist at the end is presented with just the right tweak. Kids will get the joke. Kids will not care when it is set or foist onto the narrative America's racial past. That isn’t the question here. The question is whether or not YOU, the adult reader, care. Whether you, the adult purchaser (or not) care. Whether you love it or not, I advise you to take a nice long look at “Probuditi!” before you hand it to the niece or nephew in your family that’s in need of a good picture book. Feel free to buy it if you think I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. All I ask is that you look at it first.