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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
The Short and Incredibly Happy Life of Riley
The Short and Incredibly Happy Life of Riley
by Colin Thompson, illustrated by Amy Lissiat
Everyone wants to live forever.
They want to be happy and healthy.
Some of these things are actually quite difficult, but some of them are really easy, which might seem surprising because most people hardly manage any of them. At least not all of the time.
None of this bothered Riley.
Riley had been born happy. His earliest memory was being with his brothers and sisters and mom in a big bed with plenty of food and no rain.
He was always happy, even when he was asleep.
--The Short and Incredibly Happy Life of Riley, by Colin Thompson, illustrated by Amy Lissiat, p. 1-5.
Riley the rat is always happy. Riley doesn't want much--just enough to be happy. He wants food in his belly, a stick with a pointy end to scratch his back, and to be where he is. He appreciates everything in his life, is satisfied with everything he has, is sure that he is beautiful and everyone loves him, and feels that he has everything he needs--unlike people, who so often want something more, and something after that, and who are so often depressed, unsatisfied, and unsatiated. This is a humorous, philosophical look at life, where the rat clearly knows how to live happier and with less baggage.
Thoughtful, thought-provoking, and unique, The Short and Incredibly Happy Life of Riley combines a zen-like philosophy ("The only place Riley ever wanted to be was here, which he always was.") with humor, wisdom, criticism of modern culture, and a definite lesson. The book feels like it's aimed more at adults than children. Thompson's (How To Live Forever, The Paper Bag Prince) text does not read like a story, though Riley's scenes are close (yet without tension). The text reads more like a modern folk tale that imparts a lesson. However, the strong humor keeps the lesson from feeling overly didactic.
Each scene with Riley (where he only wants just as much as he needs, or is happy) is quickly contrasted by the greed, discontent, and sometimes meanness of people, first shown through a brief example that contrasts Riley's, and then through a long hyphenated list of things people want. The hyphenated lists will be very funny to older readers, who may recognize some of their own wants or those of the people around them. The lists may also appeal to young children, just through the lovely jumble of language and specific details that are listed ("People want double-fudge-chocolate-caviar-sausage-gourmet-jumbo-size-baby-cow -sheep-chicken-with-extra-thick-whipped-cream-and-msg-sauce-burgers. Some of which is gross, some cruel and most, unhealthy."). Thompson clearly had a lot of fun writing this book; the dry humor and satire leaps from the text, as if the author is there winking at you from the page and giving you a sly grin.
Thompson's text flows easily; humor, careful word choice, and the hyphenated lists carry it through. Thompson sometimes uses metaphor to make his point (such as that people shouldn't be allowed to have sticks with pointy ends because they stick them in each other--ie. hurt each other emotionally, verbally, physically) and it works well.
Through Riley's example, the reader can see healthy, healing ways of thinking about themselves and the world around them, and may be able to absorb some of the philosophy themselves ("He was beautiful and everyone loved him. He was the best and so were his brothers and sisters and mom."). These sections are powerful and healing. However, I worry how a young reader will take the frequent putting down of people and the way we think and act that follows the sections on Riley (since the reader is, after all, a person). How a reader takes it will depend on the reader. Thompson pokes fun at the way some people act--ways that are unhealthy and unhelpful. Those are good things for young and old readers to be aware of, to get some distance from. I just wish that Thompson had said "some."
Riley's sections bring a warm, cozy feeling, which Thompson brings about through well-chosen words ("...being with his brothers and sisters and mom in a big bed with plenty of food and no rain"). Lightness is also brought through the frequent humor. The strong contrast between how people are and how Riley is makes it all the more clear how much better Riley's way is, how much happier he is.
Thompson's wise observations spiced with humor are ones that young, and especially older, readers may identify with--such as that people often don't allow themselves to eat what they want; that people often feel depressed when they look in the mirror; or that people always want more. Thompson points out that people, though often not allowing themselves to be happy, usually live for a long time, whereas Riley, who is very happy, lives for only a short time. Thompson suggests that you just have to be happy with a lot less, which is a good concept, though that wording could have been a little more positive (enjoy what you have, instead of be happy with less). The very last page says "Release your inner Riley," which is a great suggestion.
On my first read through I was put off by the overt lesson, but on subsequent read throughs I found myself enjoying it, and liking the lessen, wisdom, and philosophy that runs through the book. I think I'd pick and choose which children I'd recommend this book to, though this will have a definite appeal to some children, especially those who like clear guidance or a subversive humor. I'd heartily recommend this book to most adults. You may want to purchase this book just to remind yourself of what's important in life.
Lissiat's illustrations are quirky, unique, and fit the humorous and satiric text. The illustrations look like a mix between watercolor and ink, and acrylic, though they are actually Photoshop illustrations--incredibly good ones. Riley's spreads are child-like and overtly happy; Riley himself is a lovely bright mauve, and is almost always surrounded by shades of blue and yellow (sky) and green (grass and outdoors), adding an expansive, happy, easy-to-breathe feeling. Riley is usually smiling, and looks laid back and content.
In stark contrast, Lissiat's illustrations of people are either completely sepia tinted, including the backgrounds (especially when people are depressed or mean in the text), or are a dull beige on washed out backgrounds. This underscores the painful emotion, and makes those illustrations stand out from the rest of the color in the book. It also makes the contrast between the people and Riley even greater. Lissiat's illustrations of people are decidedly quirky, and even off-putting or disturbing. The adult male figure looks strange, like a short, stocky child in adult clothes and one of those glasses-and-mustache disguises, with a bowler hat on his head. And in the opening spread, he is seen holding a bouquet of flowers towards a curvy woman in lingerie with hearts all around her. That particular illustration doesn't seem quite relevant to children.
Background are often washes of color with some fuzzily depicted setting details. In several illustrations near the end (which fit with the text), Lissiat plays with famous paintings such as the Mona Lisa and Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, inserting the strange little man's face into most of them. Older readers may enjoy this playful, humorous touch.
The Short and Incredibly Happy Life of Riley is an enjoyable, funny, thoughtful and thought-provoking book that is sure to remind the reader of what's important in life, and what really matters. Recommended.
-Added October 29, 2007
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