Ever since the Christ-like Aslan, he of the foaming blonde mane and the deep wise sorrowful Christ-like insights about forgiveness and sacrifice, pulled a Christ-like resurrection, rising Christ-like from the dead in order to help the Pevensey children... win a war (cue needle-scratch sound effect), I have had a special smirking place in my heart for metaphors that just don't quite go the distance.
If I have just pissed you off beyond imagining by saying something critical about The Chronicles of Narnia, please have a nice weekend with my blessings and enjoy the weather. But if you are in an ornery Friday mood, by all means, click through to read the rest of this post.
It happens more frequently in picture books than in chapter books, of course. I assume that editors of chapter books tend to step in with an upraised finger: "Ah, E.B.? Here where Wilbur gets sold at auction after the fair to a kindly-looking farmer and his flinty-looking knife-wielding wife even after Charlotte goes through all that to save him? Does that really... work?" And nowadays, when a metaphor gets subverted at the last minute in a middle-grade or YA book, you have to ask yourself if perhaps the author has intended to throw the reader off the scent.
So I rely on the picture books to occasionally chuck a real head-scratcher at me, and in the course of reading, um, basically, all the picture books that my library buys - probably on the order of two dozen a week - I am not disappointed. I run across denouements that don't quite scan, lessons that read wrong, anticlimactic climaxes.
One of my favorite examples of this is a book that I reviewed years ago, One Green Apple by Eve Bunting. In it, a young Muslim girl who has recently arrived in America goes on a class field trip to an apple orchard. All the kids pick one apple apiece, and Farah, feeling a bit low in the self-esteem department, picks a runty green one. But the orchard-keeper puts all the apples in a press, and in the end, Farah's crummy-looking apple mixes with all the perfect ones, and everyone gets a Dixie cup of cider.
Super! That's what I'm looking for in a school actually - I want them to take my individual children and crush them together with the other children to make homogenized kid juice. Could you pasteurize that while you're at it?
Another one is Big Rabbit's Bad Mood. I love every page of that book except the last one. Big Rabbit has a bad mood that is hanging around the house like a smelly ex-roommate. When Big Rabbit tries to distract himself with soft music, the bad mood eats the radio. When he turns on the TV, the bad mood is there, on every channel, delivering the news, playing soccer, selling shampoo!
I like the constructive ways that Big Rabbit tries to shake his bad mood, love that the bad mood is treated as just something that shows up from time to time. I adore picture books that allow our less-positive feelings space on the shelf. Also, I am amused by the off-kilter perspectives and goofy details in the illustrations, and admire the author's naturalistic funny prose. But then there's a knock at the door and Big Rabbit opens it to find all his friends carrying presents and cake, and it's his birthday and the bad mood goes away.
And yes, I suppose that would work, but you kind of can't rely on it being your birthday every time you're in a bad mood.
Then there's Clancy the Courageous Cow. Clancy was born black, in a herd of black cows with white stripes. He's different, and his people, the Belted Galloways, shun him for it. Without that white stripe, however, he can pass for a Hereford, at least in the dark, and the Herefords are brown cows who graze on the best grass and go to the best schools and make the most money. So he's passing, and then at the annual contest, due to the advantages he has enjoyed as a faux Hereford, he beats the Herefords at their own sport. He decrees that the fence shall be torn down and both races of cows shall mix, and he marries a Hereford and they have a mixed-race calf and everybody is happy.
So that's all about pretending to be something you're not in order to gain access to resources that have been unfairly sequestered by the dominant class, then competing successfully in an arena dictated by that class, then marrying one of them. Kind of like if Eddie Murphy ended up with Penelope Witherspoon (Hee hee - Ackroyd funny). And the result is that all the cows crowd onto the field with the best grass?
Lastly, I offer another cow parable, Fair Cow, by Leslie Helakoski, author of Woolbur, and listen, don't get me started on Woolbur. Here we have Effie, an ordinary cow who reeeeeally wants to be one of those cows that win blue ribbons at the fair. She wants to be beayouuutiful. So her little pig pal Petunia gussies her up. Paints her hooves, slicks down her tail. Tells her not to lay in the mud or go out in the sun or eat carbs. Gives her the full Tyra.
When Effie arrives at the fair, she meets the other Top Cows, vain and otherworldly. But she gets distracted on the way to the judging barn, and wanders off the path to eat grass and drink from the pond and be a normal cow. Petunia the pig is just devastated - all that hard work and Effie is going to come home so disappointed! But wait! She doesn't! She comes home from the fair with a blue ribbon after all!
"Yay!" one thinks to oneself. "Natural beauty has been recognized!" But no. Effie's blue ribbon is for Best Milk. Wow. That is totally going to inspire little girls to stop asking their moms for hair extensions and makeup - instead of America's Next Top Model, they could grow up to be America's Next Top... what? What is analogous to milk production for a human child? You got me.
You know I usually don't go negative on Pink Me - life's too short to spend much time on books that aren't fantastic. But frankly, it's Friday, and every now and then even I like to have a laugh at this stuff I spend so much time with.
One last thing - my friend Juliet's baby sister Jane is on America's Next Top Model this go-round, and while I figure anyone who goes to Princeton should maybe just follow that through to its logical conclusion rather than hang out with a bunch of skinny weirdos in front of cameras, I also don't want to see Jane come home with a prize for Best Milk. So root for Jane, y'all!