Fuse #8

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Review of the Day: Brave Charlotte

And here we have yet another book that won the 2006 New York Times Best Illustrated Book Award. It's one of the more peculiar awards a book can win, and in this case it was obviously less than deserving.

The translated picture book is slowly getting more and more attention in America today. It used to be that you'd see a foreign translated title maybe once or twice in a year. Now, however, books from Germany and Italy and all kinds of places are getting more and more attention. Finland, however, has never had an American picture book hit. So when "Brave Charlotte" came out, it looked like the Fins had a sure thing going. A cute plot. Lovely little illustrations by a German illustrator. And it's all about an adorable sheep who just want to help others. What's not to like? Unfortunately the book just does not hang together very well. I'm not certain if it was the translation, the nature of the story, or the odd plot arc but for all it's charms, "Brave Charlotte" definitely comes off as less than satisfying. It's perfectly nice to look at and all. But I seriously question the New York Times Best Illustrated Book of the Year honor it received. Nice but definitely no wonder.

You have your normal everyday sheep, and then you have Charlotte. Right from the start she was different. When the other lambs stuck close to their mothers she would go bounding off in pursuit of adventure. When they would sleep at night she'd find a secret spot far away in the countryside where she could look at the moon. One day, the shepherd who tends the flock breaks his leg. The sheep don't know what to do and old Jack the border collie is too old to go get help. Who's it up to to save the day? Why none other than Charlotte, of course! Off she goes to get help. She fords streams, bounds over fields, hitchhikes on the highway, and finally finds a farmer who knows her and gets a doctor for the shepherd. Having proved herself, now all the sheep turn to Charlotte for guidance and protection. And Charlotte takes Jack the collie to her favorite spot.

I had some problems with the story, I have to admit. Some of these were definite translation mistakes. Translator Alyson Cole may know quite a lot about changing Finnish words into English, but she knows bupkiss about sheep. Jack the border collie is repeatedly referred to as a sheepdog. But sheepdogs are very different from collies. A sheepdog looks like a big while wooly sheep and protects the flock because it thinks it IS a sheep. Collies do the herding and the work moving about the sheep. There are other mistakes in the book as well, though. Part of the problem is the ending. The last image in the book is of Charlotte taking Jack off to see her secret spot. Jack is mentioned several times in the book by the other sheep as being old, but he never says a word himself. There isn't any contention or friendship shown between himself and Charlotte until that very last image. So why end the book with Charlotte sharing a secret when her newfound friendship with the dog is without any cause whatsoever? Then there's the problem with Charlotte's inclination towards dangerous situations. Stohner plays up Charlotte's adventurous nature, and that's all well and good at first. She climbs comically tall mountains. She climbs high trees for the fun of it. But then she starts doing dangerous things as well. She leaps, on purpose, into a "fast-running stream" for no apparent reason. Worse still, the sheep find her one day, "on the side of a dangerously busy road, staring at the oncoming traffic". She doesn't want to tell the other sheep what she's up to. Now, the other sheep are portrayed like overly timid busybodies. Then you have a youngster eyeing a busy road and their worries come off as interfering and persnickety. What a great lesson for the kids! Hey, children! Great news! If you want to cross that incredibly busy street or leap into some nearby rapids, feel free! Anyone who tells you to be careful or to watch yourself is probably just a wimp. Do what you feel instead! Sheesh. I don't usually care if a picture book has a lousy message, but I doubt very much that I'd be the only person to view this scene in the book with a slightly critical eye.

I mean, the illustrations are lovely, yes. Of course they are. Artist Henrike Wilson really does make Charlotte appear to be a very pleasant bundle of warm cuddly wool. She has a lovely little benign face that fits the story very nicely. But the fact is, I found the pictures in this bok to be far far nicer than the tale itself. So when it comes to nice sheep pictures, this book excels. When it comes to coherent sheep-centered plots, it's less than fabulous.


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