Fuse #8

Friday, May 26, 2006

Review of the Day: Else-Marie and Her Seven Little Daddies

I'm perfectly aware that it is Friday and that, by rights, I should be reviewing a children's book of poetry. Please understand that I had every intention of complying. Then I met this book. Remember when Mother Reader had that amusing post about Weird Ass Picture Books? Remember how funny they were and how we all laughed together over the oddities in each and every one? Ah, those were the good times. Well, kids, today I have the mother of all Weird Ass Picture Books. I have the book that could have given the genre its name. Prepare to be amazed, dazzled, and generally blown away. Meet my new favorite book.

Sometimes a picture book is so bizarre, so entirely out of left-field, and so wacked-out mesmerizingly baffling that the average adult reader has no choice but to fall head over heels in love with it. Such, I tell you, is the case with, "Else-Marie and Her Seven Little Daddies". I stumbled across this book entirely by chance. My library has a rather overwhelming amount of picture books and many of these end up in a kind of Overflow of No Return. I decided to take it upon myself to inspect and sort out this overflow and was doing a pretty darn good job of it when this book fell into my lap. At first I couldn't quite wrap my head around the cover, the title, and the concept. Then, as I flipped through and found it full of early 1990s Swedish day-to-day life (albeit with THE most Freudian conceit ever to grace a picture book's pages) I found myself reading it again and again and again. Completely forgotten and utterly wonderful, I harbor the strange secret hope that perhaps someday someone somewhere will take it upon themselves to republish this little nugget of children's literature gold. Amazing doesn't even begin to describe it.

Else-Marie has seven little daddies. Most people have one big one. She has seven small ones. It's not so bad usually. Like all the other kids she knows, she waits for them to come home at the end of the day. They usually like to play a game with her in the evening, though sometimes they'll share a single paper between themselves. Today, however, things are different. Else-Marie's mother has informed her daughter that she won't be able to pick her up from work today. Can you guess who will? Thaaat's right! Her seven fathers. Suddenly the girl is aware that her family situation might seem a bit odd to the other kids. She has nightmarish visions of her daddies getting run up a tree by a dog, accidentally sat on by the teacher, or played with as dolls by the other kids. Of course, when the time actually comes it turns out that Else-Marie had nothing to worry about. Her daddies are the hit of her class. They tell stories no one else as heard and think that the birdhouse their daughter has constructed is top notch. In the end, Else-Marie learns to respect her non-traditional family and sums up this acceptance quite simply: "I wouldn't trade my seven little daddies - not for all the daddies in the world".

WOW! It's a little painful to read a book when your jaw is hanging somewhere in the vicinity of your midriff, but I think I managed it. How do I even begin to parse this? First of all, let's just make one thing bloody clear. Some people are going to be like me. They'll find the book amusing, creative, and mind-blowing. Others will be like the School Library Journal reviewer who said of the book, "All through the story readers will search for a logical explanation, some missing puzzle piece regarding Else-Marie's bizarre situation. However, no answers are provided, no hints are given. This lack of resolution makes for an ultimately unsatisfying story, with awkward attempts at humor". I suppose some people might see it that way. Not me. For me, the joy of this book is the complete and total immersion into a world in which a kid can have one pop or seven, all depending on how one is raised. And I seriously contest the reviewer's claim that the humor in this book is "awkward". On the contrary, it's spot on nine times out of ten. The story itself is funny in its conceit alone. When it starts to get into the logistics of the situation (imagine having to share a bathroom with that many family patriarchs) it gets funnier. About the time Else-Marie is getting embarrassed by her parents' singing (and what kid hasn't faced that shame in one way or another?) you feel for the kid but are laughing all the same. So she has seven daddies. So what? Author Pija Lindenbaum is hitting some pretty universal nerves when she talks about the relationship between parents and their children, especially when she speaks to how parents embarrass their offspring.

Oh, but I haven't even begun to describe the pictures. Again, the School Library Journal reviewer found the book to contain, "unappealing characters with bulging eyes and stringy hair, and the colors are murky". Actually, the colors are understated, not murky. And the characters are deeply appealing. They're not cutesy, of course, but they're fun. Now this book was originally published in Sweden and while the text is (as I said before) universal, the pictures definitely hail from the land of IKEA. Whether you're looking at the furniture in the school's staff room, the "FUT cr me" in the mother's bedroom (omigod the bed is faaabulous!), or some of the street scenes, there is little doubt left in one's mind that this is not an American creation. Then there are the wonderful details. In the living room is a fabulous wedding photo of Else-Marie's mom and seven, yup, seven grooms clustered together. In the bathroom about fourteen tiny socks soak in a tub and reminder post-it notes like "Don't forget Else-Marie" are put at tiny daddy eye-height.

You could try to rope this book into the Unconventional Family genre, but I wouldn't recommend it. As pleasant as seven small papas seems (I keep trying to work out the logistics surrounding Else-Marie's actual birth) it's not as if you're going to run into that many kids with fathers counting higher than 3 out there. Really, this is a story about a kid who's afraid of being different and who finds that maybe different is good in the end. Really, it's a very traditional story at heart. Heck, it's like Leo Lionni's, "Swimmy". Just exchange the fish in the story for seven Swedish fathers of minimal height. Okay, fine. It's weird. No one's denying that. But it's actually a lot of fun and one of those books that kids will truly enjoy. That is after they stop asking the adult reading it to them how any child can have seven fathers at once. Better prep your answers beforehand `cause the book is not about to give you any hints on the matter. This IS family fare, after all.

I have a small list that I keep of children's picture books that I wish would be republished sometime soon. Consider "Else-Marie and Her Seven Little Daddies" to now be number one on that list. It's like nothing you've ever seen before and definitely not anything you'll see again. Just a wonderful experiment in how far a picture book can go, and a fun story to boot. A must-read for anyone interested in alternate-reality children's literature. Plus I love that I live in a world where for one brief and shining moment a publisher thought it would be a good idea to publish this book.


At 10:07 AM , Blogger Kelly said...

Sounds very cool, Fuse. I'll check it out!

At 11:20 AM , Blogger MotherReader said...

And it's Swedish, of course. I'll tell you, "dem foreigners," cornering the market on strange writing for kids. Thanks for the shout-out. Come by later today for a return shout-out. It's still planned in my head...

At 2:03 PM , Blogger Greg Pincus said...

Yup. That's weird alright... but in a wonderful sounding way. Found books are the best, says the man who owns TWO copies of the Better Homes and Gardens Decorating Book from 1975....

At 4:32 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Partly you'd have to hold the two books up to one another. Weird does not equal "disturbing" in my book. If what the book is trying to say is creepy then the book is creepy. But if what the book is trying to say is just out-and-out bizarre, that's another matter entirely.

I should note that much of my dislike with LYF is based on its popularity. If "Else-Marie" were to suddenly take on the gigantic cult-like following of LYF, my opinion of it might not be so rah-rah-rah. On the other hand, I might acquire a far greater respect for the American public as a whole. It's easy to like LYF. There's a freakin' baby on the cover. Try liking a book with seven one-foot tall fathers in trenchcoats and fedoras. It takes some doing.


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