Friday, June 7, 2013

The Stories Behind the Pictures #5

Analyzing the Stories Behind this Year’s Caldecotts

Day 5—One Cool Friend

One Cool Friend
Written by Toni Buzzeo
Illustrated by David Small
Dial Books for Young Readers an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

I predict that you will delight in reading the words and the illustrations in One Cool Friend. In fact, the whole story could not be told without the integration of both. This is truly a picture book where the text tells half the story and the illustrations tell the other half. The illustrations have a retro kind of feel with black, white, and gray predominating. Then a bit of red and blue are thrown into the mix. This is kind of like the old three-color print jobs of years gone by, but now rendered in a more sophisticated (and nicer looking) format. Kudos to David Small.

Toni Buzzeo (who is one cool friend to kids, librarians, teachers, and children’s writers) is a part-time Floridian. So we claim her as an SCBWI Florida member. I heard her speak in January at our Annual Meeting in Miami. The inspiration for this book came when Toni read or heard about a boy nabbing a penguin from a local aquarium. She knew instantly that the penguin heist would make a great story, but when she went to the aquarium’s web site she found a huge banner reading: PENGUIN KIDNAPPING—URBAN LEGEND. Despite the fact that the story wasn’t true, Toni still knew this story was meant to be told in a picture book.

Elliot is the main character and he is a proper young man. You might say Elliot looks penguin-like. His father, the other human character in the book, is a supportive (though not totally tuned-in) parent, and you come to realize that Dad looks a lot like a turtle. Interesting. On a visit to the aquarium, Elliot asks if he can have a penguin. Thinking his son means a plush penguin from the gift shop, Elliot’s dad forks over twenty bucks. Elliot chooses a real penguin, names him Magellan, and takes him home in his backpack. The reader witnesses a comical series of events as Elliot creates the perfect habitat for Magellan without his father ever noticing. The final twists and turns of the book will have kids (and you) hooting with laughter.

The story is an event-driven story, based on a unique idea and with one-of-a-kind, memorable characters. I suppose you could argue that Elliot’s problem is keeping Magellan under wraps while providing a habitat for him. But I don’t see any failures in these attempts—just lots of well-written, well-timed comedy. Factual information is tucked into the text making it have even more value to a librarian or teacher.

If ever there were a text that left room for the illustrator, it’s this text. That may have been Toni’s intention from the beginning, she may have used art notes, or she and her editor may have edited down the text once they saw the illustrations. Whichever the case, the text is just enough to make us need to look at the illustrations for more information. (By the way the text includes 591 words and the book is written at an early third-grade reading level.)

Two additional lessons picture book authors can take away from this book are the minimalistic use of descriptions and the effective use of dialogue. Check out One Cool Friend, it’s cool!

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