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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
The Child Cruncher
The Child Cruncher
by Mathilde Stein, illustrated by Mies van Hout
Lemniscaat/Boyds Mills Press,(August 2008)
It was summertime. My friends were all on vacation, my dad was stuck in his study, the dog just wanted to sleep, and I . . . I was sooooo bored!
Then one evening, a big, hairy hand lifted me off the ground. I was thrilled! At last, someone to play with!
"Got you!" growled a harsh voice. "You're coming with me!"
But I said, "One moment, please. I have to ask my dad first. ...Dad! I'm being kidnapped by a big, ugly villain. Is that all right?"
"Oh, that's fine," Dad replied. "Just remember to brush your teeth. Have fun."
--The Child Cruncher by Mathilde Stein, illustrated by Mies van Hout, p. 1-4.
I love books about strong girls. I think it's so important to have strong and positive reflections for girls to grow up on, especially when there's so much sexism in the media. So whenever I find a book with a strong girl, I'm excited. The Child Cruncherhas a strong girl hero as its protagonist, and since it's a picture book, it's a perfect introduction for young girls and boys to learn that girls can be just as strong and as brave as boys.
The Child Cruncher is a rollicking tale that draws deeply on a child's imagination and strong sense of self. A girl is bored during summer vacation; all her friends are away. So she's delighted when a giant comes to take her away. She tells her father she's being kidnapped (and he gives his permission), then she travels with the giant to his home, where she accidentally trips him over the ravine. She saves him, but he's grumpy, so to make up for it she decorates his place while he sleeps. She does various other things that infuriates the giant (but she thinks he's just playing), until finally he says he wants to crunch her. She refuses, and goes home, to get tucked into bed.
There is humor throughout The Child Cruncher, and that humor is almost immediately visible. On only the third page of text, the girl stops the giant from kidnapping her while she goes in to tell her dad that she's being kidnapped by a villain, and her dad blithely agrees, telling her only to brush her teeth and to have fun. This may reassure readers that the tale is taking place in the girl's imagination, or that she is safe. It's also funny that the girl sees the villain as a playmate, and is not frightened of him at all. I think young readers will really enjoy Stein's sense of humor, and especially enjoy seeing the girl do nice things for the giant that infuriate him, without her realizing that he's angry. The reader will enjoy understanding something that the girl doesn't get, and this adds another layer to the story.
Stein increases the humor and the reader's enjoyment of the dual storylines (what the girl thinks is happening, and what the reader sees is happening) through showing the reader the giant's reactions, rather than telling the reader what the giant is feeling, such as the giant's mouth falling open, jumping up and down and roaring words, and getting red in the face. This works very well, allowing the reader to feel smart while wanting to warn the character about what is happening.
The girl is fiesty, confident, and cheerful, seeing only the good side of the giant until she's forced not to, and this makes her a strong, fun character to believe in, while bringing humor. That a girl can face off with a giant and emerge unscathed is a wonderful thing for readers, letting them know that they--and girls--can face potentially frightening events and not only survive, but come out of it a hero. I love the girl's courage and fiestiness. The girl in the story is unnamed, which may help readers identify with her more, as will the story text being written in first person.
When the girl decides to leave, a police officer suddenly appears to apprehend the giant. This felt too coincidental and unbelievable to me, especially because there was no mention of a police officer before that; it made it seem like the officer appeared out of thin air. For me, that interrupted my belief in the story. Still, the mention was brief, and then I was back with the girl, galloping home on a horse.
There is a suggestion of danger in the book for readers who pick up on what is actually happening, not what the girl thinks is happening. But there are also many things to reassure the reader; the girl herself is never scared and never sees herself in danger, and she easily leaves once she realizes the giant wants to harm her. Still, the hints of violence may be frightening for some readers, such as the suggestion that the giant is kidnapping the girl; the giant's anger; the giant wanting to have her for breakfast; and the giant saying outright that he wants to crunch (eat) her. Some sensitive or easily frightened readers may have trouble with the book for those reasons, though the girl herself is unfazed and simply leaves when she realizes what he wants. When I first read the story, i was put off by the giant's wanting to eat the girl, but after a second and third read, I found myself enjoying the humor, the girl's pluckiness, and her escape. I would give the book to more secure readers, or have a discussion with the child after reading the book with them.
Stein mixes imagination and fantasy into the story, leaving it up to the reader to decide whether it's taking place only in the girl's imagination, or whether it's actually happening. This is increased by the girl's dad being so cavalier about her going off with the giant, and by the girl's vivid description of the events. I like that Stein leaves it up to the reader.
van Hout's illustrations pick up on the text, bringing a kind of fantasy feel. There's a lovely beauty to the illustrations, with a lot of yellow-green grass and foliage dotted with flowers bringing a sense of outdoor life and freshness. From the shape of the buildings and the setting (grassy hilltops, mountains), there's the feeling of being in another country, which makes sense since The Child Cruncher was originally published in the Netherlands.
The illustrations are an interesting mix of grey or darker colors with the giant's cave home, and the light feeling that the green plant growth, flowers, and the girl's decorations bring. The girl and the giant, especially, stand out through their black outlines, since the objects and backgrounds mostly have no black outlines and are softer,almost blurred. This works well.
van Hout adds some touches to the giant that help him seem less scary, such as the stuffed bunny that he hugs in bed, the heart tattoo on his arm, and the way he crosses his arms and turns his back to the girl when he's upset with her, making him look like a giant toddler at times. The giant's cave is dark and dreary, so it's especially funny when the girl decorates his cave with beauty and cheerfulness, such as huge yellow hearts on the walls, purple smiley faces on the bed posts, green foliage and flowers in the doorway and tied to the bed, and bright-checked drapes.
van Hout creates a wonderful feathery texture created through brush strokes, especially through the grass found in so many of the illustrations, where strands of grass poke up all over the place and are visible. The feathery texture is also found in some of the night skies, and in the shadows of the mountains. There's a lovely sense of fantasy, as well, with the girl bringing the horse into her home and bedroom and her father not saying anything, and her interaction with the giant himself.
This is a book that will remind readers that girls can be strong, plucky, and brave, without preaching to readers. It's a fun, imaginative story with a great heroine. Recommended!
-Added August 07, 2008
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