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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
Slugs in Love
Slugs in Love
by Susan Pearson, illustrated by Kevin O'Malley
Marshall Cavendish,(November 2006)
Marylou loved everything about Herbie--how his slime trail glistened in the dark, how he could stretch himself thin to squeeze inside the cellar window, how he always found the juciest tomato. Though she never spoke a single word to him--she was too shy--she thought about Herbie every morning and every night and most of the hours in between.
On Monday, while she grazed in the strawberry patch, Herbie filled her mind and a love poem filled her heart. She wrote it in slime on the watering can.
Strawberries are red.
Blueberries are blue.
Herbie is handsome.
--Slugs in Love by Susan Pearson, ilustrated by Kevin O'Malley, p. 1-2.
How do you get the love of your life to notice you if you're too shy to approach them face-to-face? In Slugs In Love, shy Marylou leaves poems for Herbie to find, writing them with her glistening slime. Herbie becomes interested, and writes her back, but a series of events keep Marylou from discovering that he's responded. Marylou continues to write Herbie poems, getting more and more desperate, until finally Herbie leaves a poem that Marylou can't miss--on the tallest tomato plant ("All slugs like tomatoes!"). Then they meet and fall in love. This is a funny, sweet book about love, communication, not giving up, and poetry.
Pearson's (Grimericks, Who Swallowed Harold?) humorous text is a mixture of prose and poetry; the prose takes up the bulk of the story, while the poems are written by the two slugs, Marylou and Herbie, as they try to connect with each other. The poems in this book scan well; the rhythms line up perfectly, not missing a beat, and they move smoothly into each other, always making sense, unlike much other poetry found in picture books. Nothing ever feels forced in the poems. The poems add to the fun and to the tension, further the plot, and are a delight to read, especially because they are a conversation between the two slugs who keep missing each other. I found myself looking forward to each new poem, wondering what Marylou and Herbie would have to say to each other, and when they'd actually meet. The success of the poetry is quite a feat.
The story is engaging, and never once lost my interest, as first Marylou, then Herbie, make a move, and keep missing each other. Small details help us quickly come to care about Marylou and her quest to get Herbie to notice her--that she's shy, creative, passionate, and that she doesn't give up. Herbie also becomes a strong character as he tries to find Marylou, and writes poetry of his own. Good specific details are used to help the reader see the characters and their setting more clearly; we see exactly what Marylou loves about Herbie (his glowing slime trail, his ability to find the juiciest tomato), we see close-up details of the garden they're in (the watering can, the garden hoe, the watermelons, etc) and what the slugs like to eat (strawberry leaves, tomatoes). Pearson also makes nice use of metaphor to show how Marylou loves Herbie, and how she expresses her love ("Herbie filled her mind and a love poem filled her heart.").
Tension and drama is built up by the reader knowing that Herbie's actually written and left poems for Marylou, but that she keeps missing them because of events that happen. This also gives the reader a sense of knowing the inside story. Empathy is created for the characters as they keep missing each other.
Pearson creates humor in how Herbie keeps trying to find Marylou but no one seems to know her or they all give him different answers as to how she looks; in the way Marylou and Herbie keep missing each other; and in how Marylou and Herbie write their poetry--with their own slime. The humor of this love story keeps it from being too sweet or mushy, and should appeal to many sensibilities. Through the funny, light-hearted writing, poetry becomes attractive and fun, something that readers may want to play with themselves, creating their own poems. This is a wonderful side effect to the story.
I felt like I was missing a beat or two between the second last spread and the last, where Herbie asks if Marylou will be his, and then we're simply told that they lived happily ever after. I wanted a sentence or two more to wrap up this lovely story, but other readers may not find that that is true for them. And, with the visual impact of the art, I was still satisfied.
Readers may absorb some facts about slugs without realizing they're doing that, as the facts are such an integral part of the story, and do not feel like they are placed there as learning tools, but rather to add richness to the tale--facts such as that slugs love to eat tomatoes and strawberry leaves, and like to be in the dark, away from the sun.
Visually, most of the poems are written in a white type face different than the prose font, and are incorporated into the illustrations by being written over top of the things Marylou and Herbie write on (a watering can, a hoe, a fence) with a trail of slime leading down from the last letter to the slug. This visually separates the poems from the prose, and perfectly ties the text and illustrations together, as the poems appear for the reader exactly where the slugs put them. This also gives the reader the sense that they are reading the poems as they appear, along with Marylou and Herbie, and this works very well.
O'Malley's (Little Buggy Runs Away, Cinder Edna) beautiful ink, marker, and Photoshop illustrations have fine ink outlines and soft colors with multiple-blended hues that add depth and make the illustrations stand out. The illustrations are happy and light, with a cartoon-like yet realistic feeling. O'Malley makes the slugs look appealing, even adorable, with pudgy faces, round eyes, and cute little smiles. The slugs are also humanized (and distinguished from each other) by each wearing a small unique accessory; Marylou wears pink bows around her eye stems, Herbie wears a small blue baseball cap; and other slugs wear different types of hats, kerchiefs, or necklaces. It would be hard to see these cute slugs as gross, and that is an accomplishment. The slugs' slime looks very slime-ish, almost beautiful the way it seems to glow, and the slime paths curve in pleasing arcs. Body language is clear and easy to read, most especially in the slugs, and also in the birds and scarecrow. Though humans are briefly mentioned (the gardener), O'Malley helps keep the story firmly on the slugs and their love, by never showing illustrations of humans, but only the slugs, the garden, other insects, birds, and human-made objects and structures.
O'Malley blends and overlaps colors well together, creating a gradation of color and hues to show lights and darks within one object, such as a leaf, and this is visually pleasing. Key colors are blended and echoed throughout each illustration, bringing the illustration together as a whole (for instance, the vibrant red of the strawberries is echoed in the earth, and most deeply right where Marylou sits, as well as in her bows, in rocks, and faintly in the foliage in the background and some of the leaves). Many key colors are also repeated throughout the book, especially brown, green, blue, orange, and faint yellow. O'Malley also makes nice use of highlights and shadows, and that, plus the fading and lack of detail for of many background scenes, create a sense of depth and allow the main characters and the foreground to pop into focus. There are one or two illustrations where the slugs do not stand out as much as the poetry; I would have liked them to stand out a bit more.
There is a lot of white space in the background of each illustration, bringing a feeling of lightness, and often making the slugs even more of a focal point. All of the illustrations except four are full spread illustrations that bleed right to the edges of the pages; four illustrations take up a single page each facing each other, yet are part of the same scene. Visually, the illustrations vary in where the greatest area of white space is, how much white space is present, how large or small the slugs are in the illustrations, and what the focus point is, and this helps bring variation and visual interest.
There are some well-placed details that add to the emotional tone and to the story, such as a packet of seeds for Forget-Me-Nots; faded purple flowers behind Marylou when she's dreaming that look dream-like; a pair of birds that look down at Herbie's poem on a gigantic tomato; a few stalks of yellow grain springing up from greenery that look like hope; and, in the last illustration paired with text, a number of slug children that clearly belong to Marylou and Herbie.
The very last illustration, without story text, shows Marylou and Herbie with their heads together, their trail of slime making a heart with "the End" inside, all in red. This is very similar to the cover illustration which shows them under a heart together, and it brings a visual sense of having come round full circle, but with closure and a happy ending.
This talented writer and illustrator team has created a funny, happy book that satisfies. It reminds the reader to listen to their heart, to not give up, to believe in love, and to communicate however you can, including through poetry. If you're looking for a light-hearted, feel good book, pick this one up. You won't be disappointed. Highly recommended.
-Added May 2007
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