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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
A Good Day
A Good Day
by Kevin Henkes
It was a bad day...
Little yellow bird lost his favourite tail feather.
Little white dog got her leash all tangled up in the fence.
--A Good Dayby Kevin Henkes, p. 2-5.
How does a bad day turn into a good one? A Good Day shows us how these characters do it—through a change in attitude or perspective, and small happy events.
Four creatures—a bird, a dog, a fox, and a squirrel, each have something bad happen—the bird loses his favorite tail feather, the dog gets her leash tangled, the fox can't find his mother, and the squirrel loses a nut. And then each of these losses are quickly reversed, as the creatures find something even better. In the end, a young girl finds the feather the bird lost, and recaps for all the characters, "What a good day!" A Good Day reminds the reader how quickly a bad day or bad feeling can change to a good one when something nice or comforting happens. It also suggests that if you just take a moment when something bad happens (or seems to happen) you may find there's something just as good or even better that you wouldn't have otherwise noticed. This is a soothing, happy, thought-provoking book.
Henkes' (Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse, Kitten's First Full Moon) simple, brief text, well-chosen words, and pacing make the book fly. The first sentence contradicts the title, which some readers may find amusing. It also immediately makes the reader question "why?" and want to turn the page to find out.
The characters are each separate, on their own pages and with their own problems, but they are united by their common feeling—at first that it's a bad day, and then that it's a good day. There's also a nice back-and-forth movement between female and male characters, giving both a sense of rhythm and balancing out gender.
Henkes has a good sense of pacing, using a partial, leading sentence to build suspense in three places—the beginning, middle, and end. The suspense is built through making the reader pause (by waiting until the next spread) to discover the answer, and by making the reader question why (Why is it a bad day? What changed? What else happened?). It works well.
There's a pleasing rhythm to the book, especially in the way the half sentences repeat three times in key places in the story, and the repetition of four characters who each have a similar feeling-state event occur twice (something bad, then something good). The smaller repetition of "little (color) (animal)" also brings a pleasing rhythm of its own.
The length and rhythm of the text suddenly changes near the end with the dog and then the bird, and seems slightly awkward or that there are a few extra words, and this doesn't match the rest of the text. For me, this pulled it out of the rhythm, but it didn't detract from the power of the book.
The happy events that each of the characters experience directly relate to and change the specific bad experience they had (the squirrel finds the biggest nut she's ever found, the fox turns around and finds his mother, etc), and this brings a soothing feeling. It also helps that those positive events are all piled together (which build up the good feeling and end the book on that note). The way the events are positioned makes it seem as if the good thing for each character happened immediately after the bad—that they only had to turn around or wait a few seconds to find that something much better happened.
The positioning of the good events is finely crafted; it occurs in reverse order, with the reader hearing about the bad thing the squirrel experienced (losing her nut) and then almost immediately hearing about the good thing that happened to the squirrel (finding an even bigger nut). This brings immediate relief about the squirrel, suggests that the other characters will each have their turn (which they do), and ensures that the order ends with the yellow bird, which brings the story around full circle. This order also perfectly sets up the girl finding the yellow feather, as the reader is reminded of what the bird lost; it reminds the reader of the first event in the book. This brings a sense of satisfaction.
When the little girl happily discovers the yellow bird's feather and declares the day a happy day, the story moves into something bigger and deeper than it was. She's a character outside of all the others already mentioned, and yet she connects the story up by picking up the first character's—the bird's—feather. Her discovery of something that was at first a loss for one character, but became a joy for her, suggests that even when something seems to be bad, it may turn out to be good, and not just for you but for others as well. This adds some depth and sophistication.
The positive messages in this book are told completely through story and example—the best way to absorb a message. The text shows the reader that in some characters a change in attitude, perspective, or action helped make their day a happy one (The yellow bird forgot about his feather, and was then able to fly higher than ever before; the fox turned around, and found his mother; the little dog untangled herself and was then able to have fun in the yard.).
Henkes' watercolor-and-ink illustrations are bright and happy, with cheerful pastel colors, and the characters outlined with thick brown ink. Henkes' style here is different than his other books, drawing on his thick ink lines and bold illustrations from Kitten's First Full Moon, and his pastel colors from earlier works. It is a visually pleasing combination. There is a lightness to the images, especially because of the bright, soft colors, and the light blue sky and green foliage that appear in every image (and that is often associated with pleasant feelings). This helps the book feel reassuring.
Each illustration appears on one page, taking up most of the page, with a hand-drawn border done in thick brown ink lines (except for the rainbow stripes). The entire first page is covered with pastel rainbow stripes of color, separated by thinner strips of brown ink and the white of the page, and this is paired with the very first text, "It was a bad day . . . ". This creates a nice contrast, showing beauty and happiness through the illustration, even though the text says otherwise. This helps reassure the reader and give the reader a sense that everything's okay. This full-page stripes occurs once more, also paired with a partial sentence, mid-way through the book, and the repetition adds to the pleasing visual effect. Even more enjoyable is seeing those stripes again (but smaller this time) at the end of the book (completing the repetition of threes; the perfect placement of beginning, middle, and end; and the pairing with partial sentences), and discovering that the rainbow stripes coincide with the girl's sleeves—tying the stripes in to a character and making it more part of the story. This makes it visually and emotionally satisfying. There's also a thin strip of the rainbow stripes along the top and the bottom of the copyright/inner title page, which is a nice touch.
The stylized characters almost look like wood cuttings. Each character stands out in their illustration, their outlines darker and their color brighter than that of their background, making them a focal point. The characters show emotion, both sadness and happiness, and it is shown in a similar way through facial expressions (eyebrows showing pain, then later closed eyes showing happiness).
Each illustration works well and visually pulls together, as the color of the character in the scene is echoed faintly elsewhere in the image; the yellow from the bird also appears in the clouds and center of the flowers, the white of the dog also appears in a dandelion puff and the pink of her ear in the pink flowers behind her, the orange-brown of the fox appears (more lightly) in the toadstools and tree trunks, the brown of the squirrel appears (more lightly) in the acorn and the pink of the squirrel's ears in the flowers on lily pads.
The girl in the ending of the book is joyful and whimsical, with her hair flying free, bare feet, the yellow feather tucked behind her ear, and bright, sweet clothes, adding to the sense of happiness. All of the characters appear in the last image, the animals appearing in the yard outside the girl's house, tying the characters and the book together. The image is also smaller than all the others and is a pulled-back view, signaling the end of the book, and adding to the closure and feeling of satisfaction.
A Good Day is a beautiful, happy book—well written, illustrated, and designed. It's hopeful, encouraging, and uplifting, and gives the reader a gentle reminder that something that seems to be bad at first can turn out to be good, and that when something bad happens, try taking a moment and see if there's something good or even better that's occurred because of it. The book also suggests that the reader may be able to make their own bad day a good one through a change in attitude, perspective, or action. Highly recommended.
-Added February 2007
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