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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
by Kes Gray, illustrated by Garry Parsons
Red Fox/Random House,(June 2004)
Billy looked long and hard at every single bucket on every single shelf.
"There it is," he shouted excitedly, "that's the one I want, right up there--19 shelves up, 78 along from the left!"
Billy's mum and dad got someone to help them.
"They all look the same to me," said the shop assistant.
"No, that one's special," said Billy excitedly.
When Billy got home he ran straight into the kitchen and filled his bucket with water.
"Wow!" said Billy, peering inside his bucket.
"I can see a rock pool with crabs and seaweed and little shrimpy things!"
"Of course you can, Billy," smiled his dad.
--Billy's Bucket, written by Kes Gray, illustrated by Garry Parsons, p. 7-12
All Billy wants for his birthday is a bucket. His parents try to talk him out of it, but when he won't change his mind, they give in and take him to Buckets-R-Us, where Billy picks out a very specific bucket. The store assistant and his parents can't see anything different about it, but Billy can. He knows it's special. And when he gets home and fills it with water, the reader sees he was right. Each time Billy peers into the bucket, he sees an underwater scene. He tells his parents, but they don't believe him. Even worse, they tease him about it, suggesting that they'll use his bucket for mundane things. Billy forcefully tells them that whatever they do, they must not use his bucket. But in the morning when he wakes up, his bucket isn't there. Billy runs outside, only to find that his father has emptied a gigantic whale onto the street and cars. Billy simply says "I told you not to borrow my bucket." Billy's Bucket is a wonderfully imaginative, magical, and feel-good fantasy.
Gray (Eat Your Peas, You Do!) creates sympathy and empathy for Billy in the very first spread as his parents try to talk him out of what he really wants, suggesting other, more expensive things that many kids would jump at--a computer game, a bike, running shoes--and belittling his wish for a bucket. Gray notches up the sympathy through having Billy's parents laugh at him and tease him when he tells them what he sees, refusing to believe him. Young readers may enjoy Billy's seriousness and earnestness of what is truly fantastical, and root for him, believing in his underwater world along with him.
Billy shows great strength of character and tenaciousness as he sticks to his both his desire for a bucket though his dad tells him that "nobody has buckets for their birthday," and to what he sees in his bucket, though his parents don't believe him. This helps the reader like Billy right from the opening, and by the end, shows the reader that Billy was right to stay true to himself.
Gray's pacing works well. Billy's search for the perfect bucket brings reader curiosity and suspense (Why does Billy want a bucket? Why is this one special?) as well as humor, as Billy is the only one who can see that the bucket is special. That Billy is so precise in picking out his bucket helps clue the reader in that Billy really can see something special, and the precise detail also helps the magic seem more believable, as does his parents scoffing at the magic. (Adults often--but not always--seem to miss what children can see so easily.)
Gray's dialogue helps the text move forward quickly. The dialogue feels believable, especially Billy's description of what he sees in his bucket "I can see a rock pool with crabs and seaweed and little shrimpy things!". Billy's dialogue where he names what he knows and only describes what he doesn't know makes what he sees in the bucket seem all the more real; it sounds just like a child would act if it were really happening.
Gray creates tension for the reader as Billy is laughed at, unfairly teased, and not believed by his parents. This tension makes the ending all the more sweet and triumphant, as Billy is proved right beyond a doubt, and the tension is released. It brings a great reward for the reader, and is deeply satisfying. It also brings a sense of justice, of having some right in the world, especially for a young child.
Billy's Bucket is a tribute to a child's imagination and a child's wisdom, in seeing something that the adults around him are blind to because it does not fit into their understanding of the world. It also shows how real one's inner world can feel; it is made real in this book.
Billy's Bucket has a great pairing of text and illustration; the illustrations show things that the text does not, and without the text, the story would not be a story, or so deeply satisfying.
Parsons (G.E.M., Trouble at the Dinosaur Cafe)uses a loose, exaggerated, cartoon-like style. Parsons' illustrations have wonky, fun perspectives and a free energy. Characters and objects are outlined in thin color, and sometimes background objects are only depicted through colored outlines. The illustrations are cheerful, with full color spreads and bright colors, and repeating shades of yellow, blue, green, and red.
Keen observers will love spotting all the sea themes in the book that also appear in the bucket's underwater scenes and serve as a kind of visual foreshadowing, such as the wind-up toy whale and the paintings and drawings on the wall of a whale and a boat on a wave; the octopus that appears underwater and recurs in the newspaper and calender; and the crab that appears in the bucket and later in a drawing on the wall. Another fun visual detail that also helps to tie the book together is that a truck that transports buckets, presumably from the same store where Billy purchased his bucket, is seen passing through the window in the opening and closing illustrations, and also on the copyright page.
Throughout the story, we see Billy's parents preparing birthday things for him--balloons, cupcakes, food--that is not mentioned in the text. This helps add dimension to the story, and make it feel more full and rich; the characters are "living" beyond the text.
Parsons cleverly uses perspective to make the reader feel as if they are in the bucket with the sea creatures, looking up at Billy looking in, whenever Billy peers in his bucket. This perspective helps the reader feel more a part of the story and magic, and makes the magic seem more real. It's not just Billy's perspective; we're there, too. This feeling grows each time Billy looks in the bucket, as the underwater scene grows larger and larger, and Billy's face and the top of the bucket grow smaller and smaller. Visually, the underwater scenes also take up more room on the spread, moving from one page, to a page and a fifth, to a page and a half, to a page and a bit more than that.
Readers may also enjoy deciding things for themselves through the illustrations that are not told (or decided) in the text, such as when Billy says he thinks he saw a mermaid but it could be a big herring. If the reader looks closely they can see that it is, indeed, a mermaid in the water. The ending is punctuated by the illustrations; we are not told in the text exactly what happened until the very last page, but in the second-to-last page we see it--the whale lying in the street, Billy's father staring flabbergasted, his mouth open, the bucket still swinging, water splashing out of it. This allows the reader to put some things together for themselves, and ensures that the text and illustrations do not retell what is unnecessary.
Billy's Bucket encourages imagination, dreaming, and staying with your own truth. It is a fun, deeply satisfying fantasy, and is one of my very favorite books. Highly recommended.
-Added November 3, 2007
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