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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
You're Mean, Lily Jean
You're Mean, Lily Jean
by Frieda Wishinsky, illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton
North Winds Press (Scholastic Canada),(September 2009)
Carly always played with her big sister, Sandy.
They played dragons and knights.
They played explorers and pirates.
They played mountain climbers and astronauts.
Then Lily Jean moved in next door.
Lily Jean wore shiny red shoes and a puffy red skirt. She had a red ribbon in her long brown hair.
“I can play the xylophone and drums,” she told them. “I can skate backwards and stand on my head.”
--You're Mean, Lily Jean, by Frieda Wishinsky, illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton, p. 4.
Have you ever been pushed around by a bully? That’s what Carly experiences when her new neighbor, Lily Jean, moves in. Before Lily Jean, Carly and her older sister Sandy played imaginative games together beautifully. But once Lily Jean moved in, everything changed. Lily Jean wanted to only play with Sandy, and treated Carly as an inferior. Lily Jean is a bully in the way girls can sometimes be–controlling, domineering, belittling (but not physically the way boys often are). At first Sandy and Carly go along with her, only faintly protesting. But as Lily Jean’s control continues, both Carly and Sandy standing up to Lily Jean in small ways until a final rebellion that shifts the power imbalance and makes them all equals. Through their standing up to a bully, they teach the bully to play co-operatively and kindly.
You know how right it feels to read a picture book where the illustrations and text work perfectly together? It deepens the experience, somehow. And when the book touches you emotionally, it makes it even richer. That’s what happened to me with You’re Mean, Lily Jean. It’s a moving, feel-good story.
Wishinsky’s text has strong, believable dialogue which helps the story move quickly, and specific details that tell us a lot about the character–such as that Lily Jean wears shiny red shoes, a puffy red skirt, and a red ribbon in her hair.
I was so glad that Sandy, the older sister, wasn’t cruel or bullyish to Carly (on top of Lily Jean). Although Sandy didn’t protect her sister from most of what happened, she did keep resisting in small ways, which eventually made a difference–AND which helped the story have a lighter, happier tone than it might otherwise have had.
Wishinsky comes up with a sweet way of working things out with the bully–a way that might inspire children or adults reading it to adopt themselves. I love that Carly stood up to Lily Jean, even though she still gave in. Wishinsky created a nice build up of behavior and actions which allowed me to believe in the growth and change of the characters. It made it both believable and satisfying for me that Carly stood up to Lily Jean in her own way–within the “rules”. Most uplifting is the equaling of power, and the reversal of Lily Jean’s attitude. I wasn’t sure I completely believed in Lily Jean’s turn around, but I really enjoyed it.
Denton’s watercolor-and-pencil illustrations are done with a light hand. They’re expressive, with strong body language and characters, and they match the text beautifully. The characters are appealing yet not too cute. Denton’s style reminds me of some British illustrators, such as Edward Ardizzone.
The reader will get a lot emotionally from the illustrations; Lily Jean looks smug while the others don’t. The characters really stand out; often there is no to little background setting, aside from the immediate surroundings/objects such as a bike and fence. This makes the reader focus on the characters and their dynamics–which is what the story is about. Denton also makes Lily Jean often stand out the most, visually adding to the power imbalance with Lily Jean being higher than the other characters, and usually in red–the most noticeable color, with bits of lighter red visually pointing her way, or having everyone look her way. When Lily Jean is tamed, the illustrations neutralize, with some soft red in the background tying all the characters together and Lily Jean behind the others. Then, in the final illustration, Lily Jean wears only a small amount of dark red, her red shoes discarded on the ground–and the others are wearing red, too. This works beautifully.
If you’re looking that addresses bullying or inequality, for a book where a victim becomes a victor, or an uplifting book, pick this book up! Highly recommended.
-Added September 18, 2009
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