Fuse #8

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Review of the Day: Fred Stays With Me! by Nancy Coffelt

Fred Stays With Me!
By Nancy Coffelt
Illustrated by Tricia Tusa
Little Brown and Company
ISBN: 978-0316882699
On shelves now

Maybe it’s a little too soon to start cooing loudly over a 2007 title. And not just any 2007 title but a JUNE 2007 title. Maybe. And maybe it’s too soon to start mentioning it to my patrons when they ask for picture books that concern a topic all too common in American today; divorce. Maybe. And maybe it’s too soon to start whispering words like “fabulous pictures” and “sensible touching plot” and “must-own title” around Nancy Coffelt’s, Fred Stays With Me. Maybe. Or maybe a blogger like myself should start as early as possible to help rustle up some support for what I strongly believe to be a must-have 2007 pick. Picture books come and picture books go but I think there’s gonna be one thing we can all agree on in the upcoming 2007 season... Fred Stays With Me!

Says the young girl hero of this book, life can be inconsistent but not when it comes to her dog Fred’s living status. Whether she’s living with her mom one day or her dad the next, “Fred stays with me!”. Of course, it’s not as if Fred is a perfect pet at all times. When they’re at her mom’s he likes to bark at the next door neighbor’s poodle. When they’re at her dad’s, Fred eats every sock you can find. Still, the pup is a constant in the little girl’s life. So much so that when each of her parents make the point that Fred can’t stay with them, our heroine declares long and loud that there is no question of Fred staying with one parent or another. After all, “Fred stays with ME!” Realizing this, her mom and dad find ways to work around or change Fred’s less than desirable habits and all is well in the end.

Now you would think with the sheer number of children of divorce living in America today that there would be a plethora of excellent picture book titles out there reflecting those kids’ living situations. Now I’m going to sit you down and ask you a question. Have a seat. You ready? Okay. Look me in the eye and name five books written for young children that are really excellent, talk about divorce, and are instantly relatable. Can’t come up with five? I’ll make it easy on you then. Come up with three. No, wait, two. Come up with just two titles. Remember, they have to be “good”. Not the usual Mommy-And-Daddy-Don’t-Live-Here-Anymore Mr. Rodgers knock-offs clogging bookstore shelves nationwide. Honest-to-goodness smart books of divorce are as uncommon as sweet summer rains in December. They can happen, but they’re rare. Fred Stays With Me! is the very definition of rare too. Few books really capture the heart of a character’s story like this book manages to do. The little girl in this book accepts her situation. It’s not perfect but she has something constant in her life that she can always count on. Her Fred. And Fred’s no saint himself, but with a little pushing on the girl’s part, her parents can learn to adapt to the dog’s messy ways. He doesn’t fit perfectly into their lives but he fits perfectly into their daughter’s, and they simply are going to have to accept that. “Fred doesn’t stay with either of you. Fred stays with ME!” Says it all right there, it does.

Extra points to the person who roped illustrator Tricia Tusa into this project as well. Ms. Tusa is a memorable illustrator. Even if you’ve never read any of her picture books, you’ll recognize her style from innumerable book covers. Here, Tusa works with a purposefully limited palette. In an era of increased glam and glitz in the children’s book industry, Tusa’s muted autumnal colors come as a truly gorgeous compliment to Coffelt’s low-key action. The entire book is told in golden brown, saffron, and peach watercolors. Tusa then creates characters that are sweet but never maudlin. She manages to create truly amiable people and animals that win your heart with just the slightest of glances at the cover. But when you see the little girl sitting in a tree showing Fred her paper dolls or holding Fred in a kind of makeshift spotlight as she explains that her pet is HER pet, you don’t feel overwhelmed by sticky sweet emotions. You are instead facing actual honest-to-goodness raw and realistic feelings that Coffelt and Tusa offer up to you honestly. Add in the details Tusa is able to sneak in here and there (like the footwear-devouring Fred staring lovingly up at a single sock hanging on a line) and you’ve got yourself the only artist I can imagine Coffelt’s book ever pairing with.

This isn’t a book that unfairly plays with your heartstrings. It wins your heart fair and square and manages to be the number one best picture book about divorce ever written as a result. On that you can quote me. By far one of the strongest picture books you’ll see on your shelves, and a book you should write down the title of right now so that you can remember it’s shining face later on down the line. A strong remarkable creation.

On shelves June 1, 2007.

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At 12:25 PM , Blogger Cheryl said...

Fuse, are you familiar with "Two Homes" by Claire Masurel, illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton? Wonderfully matter-of-fact and reassuring, and lovely illustrations too.


At 4:05 PM , Blogger Little Willow said...

That sounds sweet.

I agree - The most recent depiction of a well-adjusted divorced family I can think of is the car commercial where they go on vacation together, and you don't realize until the end, when the dad hugs the kids goodbye and thanks the mom that you realize the parents are divorced.

Meanwhile, Stay With Me (one of my favorite books of the year, BTW) allows the teen narrator to be friendly with her half-sisters (20 years older than she is) and her father's ex-wife. Amazing story.


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