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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Diane Goode
Harcourt Children's Books,(June 2007)
A boy was tired of being a boy. He hoped to be somebody new.
So his auntie who lived in a faraway land said, "I know just what I should do!"
She sent him a box, a rather big box,
which he opened right then and not later.
He pulled out a head and a very long tail
quite a fine alligator.
--Alligator Boy, by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Diane Goode, p. 1-8.
A boy is tired of being a boy, so he becomes an alligator by donning an alligator head and tail his aunt sent him. He gets reassurance from his father that he's still loved, though his mother worries until a vet reassures her that the alligator-boy is well, just needs to be fed and taught to spell. So the alligator boy goes to school, where he scares off a bully, engages in activities in school, and feels happy.
Alligator Boy is a delightful story about a boy who uses his imagination and a few props to change how he sees himself and his world—and how others see him, too. It shows how a little imagination can bring some pizzaz to ordinary things.
Rylant's (Dog Heaven, Henry and Mudge books) text is a joy. The story is imaginative and fun, the bouncy rhymes have a great energy, and there is a good blend of fantasy and reality—enough to allow the reader to completely dive into the story world and believe in it. It feels like every line adds to the story; there is nothing here that shouldn't be.
Rylant's rhymes flow so well you don't notice them, but instead focus on the content of the story—as a good rhyme should do, in my opinion—and later you are left with the rhythm in your head. The rhyme only once interfered with the story, for me, feeling awkward and forced and interrupting the flow of text: "She asked a good doctor to come and to see/this boy who could not a boy now be." But the story was so engaging, I leaped back in, and the rest of the rhymes held me there.
The story is entertaining, with just the right amount of silliness and absurdity. The boy takes initiative, wanting to try out someone new, and it is rewarding to see the boy enjoy himself so immensely, all the while standing up to a bully, and saving a dog from a dog catcher. It can remind readers of the power and joy of imagination, and of doing what feels right to you.
Goode's (Christmas in the Country, When I Was Young in the Mountains) ink, gouache, and watercolor illustrations are expressive and full of life, and are enjoyable to look at. Goode shows so much with just a few lines and a spot of color—emotion, character, action, and mannerisms are all there. Goode's spare illustrations, reminiscent of Edward Ardizzone (think Tim and the Lighthouse) are free-flowing, with fluid lines, not tightly held in. Each character is unique. The parents look kind, and it's refreshing to see the mother drawn as a more normal-sized woman (not stick-thin). It's also nice to see a doctor who's a woman doctor, a vet who's Black, and multiculturalism reflected in the children.
The illustrations have a quaint, slightly older (or European) feel to them through the mother's clothing, the aunt and boy's telephones, the bully's hat. Goode includes only what's needed to to tell the story—no distracting details or setting, just the characters, their immediate objects, furniture, people, etc., and small blotches of color for the ground or background. The borderless illustrations are medium-to-small on the pages, with a lot of white space surrounding them. This gives the book a clean look, adds to their free feeling, and focuses the attention on the story and the characters.
The story illustrations really begin just inside the front paper (showing us the outside of a museum), continue on the copyright page, and on the page before the text begins, adding to the setting and story. It's a nice bonus for readers to discover.
Rylant and Goode's work meshes perfectly together, each adding to the other, while never detracting from each other. Both know what they are doing. This is one fine picture book.
Readers will have a lot of fun watching the boy be an alligator-boy, and imagining themselves in his place.
Alligator Boy is joyful, fun, and encourages creativity and imagination, and stretching your and others' perceptions of who you are. It encourages the reader to do what makes you happy, to be who you want to be, and to try different personas on for size—all through a throughly enjoyable story.
-Added February 2007
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