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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
written and illustrated by Melanie Watt
Kids Can Press,(September 2007)
Once upon a time there was a mouse.
He lived in a house in the country.
Then Mouse packed his bags and went on a trip very, very far away and we never saw him ever again!
So Chester moved in and made a few changes to HIS new place.
--Chester by Melanie Watt, p. 1-3.
Melanie Watt, the author (and illustrator), starts writing a story about a mouse. Chester the cat, a character she's drawn, quickly objects to that. He wants to hog all the attention in Watt's book, and tries to, so the author and her character have a fight over whose story will take the upper hand, with Chester winning for much of the story, making the book about him, and not some mouse. Chester is a funny--at times laugh-out-loud funny--and clever book. It's easy to identify with Chester; who hasn't wanted to occasionally be the center of attention, or to have someone give you positives? Chester goes for that, no holds barred. This is a book that will have you grinning and wanting more.
Watt's (Scaredy Squirrel, Scaredy Squirrel Makes a Friend, Augustine) humor runs throughout the entire book; it begins on the cover, with Chester the cat crossing out the author's name (Melanie Watt), and putting his own in bright red marker, then continues on the fly leaf, the front matter, the copyright page, the intro page, and all throughout the story, with Chester making over-the-top, full-of-himself comments in bright red marker. The humor is a delight. Chester was nominated for the 2007 Cybils awards.
The story starts out with what is clearly the author's text about a mouse. The first two lines are ho-hum, which make it all the more funny when Watt switches to Chester's self-absorbed voice, with Chester's text appearing in bright red marker beneath the first two lines. Chester's efforts to take over the book are funny, such as him trying to make the mouse move from his home so the story will be all about Chester. There are also red-marker scribbles over the illustrations, as Chester circles the mouse and shows it leaving on an airplane, and then on the next page, puts his mark on many things in the illustration so that it is clearly HIS: marking the chair "Chester's chair" and scribbling in a red ball of yarn, marking the curtain his, scribbling a stick-figure portrait of a cat over top all the mouse portraits, crossing out the cheese and putting in a fish to eat, etc. Readers will enjoy looking at all the ways that Chester tries to make the illustrations his own.
Watt retaliates in saucy and playful text by making the mouse return home, bringing with him a huge dog with teeth. The tug-of-war between the author and her character brings a light thread of tension as well as humor, which will make readers want to turn the pages quickly to find out what happens next. Watt and Chester talk back and forth, which makes the story feel more playful and tension-fraught, and moves the story along quickly. The dialogue is not put into quotation marks, as it's seen as part of the text that they each write.
There is a wonderful playfulness, creativity, and inventiveness in the text and illustrations as Chester tries to make the story his own--and it helps the reader become aware of the author and the process of writing a book (in a good way). It also suggests creative problem solving, such as when Chester quickly makes the dog a vegetarian dog who only eats carrots.
Chester's over-the-top enthusiasm about himself feels like the self-confidence that a healthy young child should have about her/himself. As a character in a book, and as a cat, it's incredibly funny, as Chester's proclamations reach greater and greater heights of outrageousness. The text is well written.
The ending didn't feel like enough of an ending for me; I didn't feel like there was quite enough of a wrap-up. I wanted a few sentences more, an extra beat or two, to bring the story to a satisfying close. I felt like I was left hanging. It also felt like a bit of a trick that the reader and Chester could see coming, when the author says she'll write him his own story; of course the reader knows the author hasn't given up trying to assert her "own" story. I would have preferred that Chester won or that there was some kind of truce; I found myself feeling badly for him, especially with the illustration on the back cover. Still, overall, the book made me feel happy; the humor is so strong.
Visually, Chester's text always stands out from the rest of the story, through his bright red, large text and scribbled additions. This not only makes it easy and fun to read and to distinguish between what is supposed to be Watt, and what is Chester, but it also feels like Chester's character--loud and bright.
The text and illustrations feel inseparable, each reinforcing the other, adding their own information and layers to the story, and neither repeating unnecessary information (such as when Watt adds a big dog into the story--the text says "Oh yes, did I mention he brought back a really big souvenir with teeth?", while the illustration shows the huge dog with two incisors sticking out of his mouth. What is stated in the text occurs in the illustrations, like a cause and effect (such as when Watt says "it started to rain," and all of Chester's writing and drawings about himself are smudged and washed away, and he looks like a very drenched, unhappy cat. I love that glorious sense that the writing and text are so connected, and that the text so strongly influences the illustrations; there's a kind of magic to that.
Watt's pencil-and-watercolor illustrations have a soft, muted feel to them, which makes Chester's bright red text and scribbles pop, making it immediately clear which are Chester's additions and which are supposed to be Watt's text. The red marker that Chester uses looks real and three dimensional, like it comes from a photograph, while Chester looks like he's part of the illustrations, as he should be, being a character--and yet he's so much more real than his own scribblings. His own text and illustrations make him seem alive, an active participant in the story.
I love the strong body language; Chester looks blissed out, happy, or smug when he adds his own additions; scared (with his hair getting all scruffy and his body puffing up) when he feels threatened by the dog; dissatisfied, grumpy, and wet when Watt makes it rain on him; and grumpy and disgruntled when he's stuffed into a tutu. Chester's expressions and body language really add to the fun of the book, and will have readers giggling aloud when Chester gets grumpy.
Some form of the mouse appears in all the illustrations, either as Watt's illustration, or as Chester's (which, of course, is really Watt). Keen readers will have fun spotting the mouse.
Watt's illustrations are a visual delight; they are wonderfully creative in layout, such as when, in the text, she says she's had enough by stating "This is where I draw the line!" and then in the illustration, Chester actually draws a red line, splitting the spread diagonally, where a tenth of the previous illustration shows up on the left page, bleeding to the edge of the page as if it's been pushed off, and on the right page, taking up most of the space, is an illustration of Chester from behind as he draws the line with the red marker.
Watt's illustrations frequently burst through borders and off single pages, which adds to the pleasing visual effect, and the aliveness of the illustrations. There's a lot of white space, which brings a feeling of lightness.
The opening and closing illustrations are very similar. The opening illustration has a photo of Melanie Watt, and an illustration of her paints, pencil, tape, and desk, as well as a painting of Chester and the mouse, where Chester is coming alive, grabbing the red marker. In the closing illustration, the illustration is very similar, and over top of it, Chester appears with his red marker (no longer constrained by the paper he was once on), where he's drawn a mustache, beard, and glasses on top of Watt's face. This brings a nice echo and feeling of repetition, along with change.
Props to Watt, the designer, or whoever made sure that Chester's scribbles were found throughout the entire book, including the front and back cover, the inner flaps and front matter. It adds to the utter delight of the story, and makes the whole book seem playful and part of the experience. Even the author/illustrator bio at the back is a delight to read, as Watt's author photo is pushed up off the page, so her face doesn't even appear (just her neck), and Chester has written notations throughout her short bio, such as "Boring!!" and "This biography is putting me to sleep!", and then Chester's bio appears, written and drawn by him, completely in character: "Forget what's-her-name...CHESTER is the real author and illustrator of Chester" (and more). The back cover has the mouse putting one over on Chester, which works well for any readers who felt badly for the mouse; the mouse has taped a "Mice rule!" to Chester's back, though may prompt other readers to feel some sympathy for Chester.
Looking for a fun read that will make you laugh? Or a light-hearted read that will bring out the joyful, confident, wanting attention parts of you. Pick this book up. Highly recommended!
-Added December 17, 2007
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