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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
by Michelle Knudsen, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes
One day, a lion came to the library. He walked right past the circulation desk and up into the stacks.
Mr. McBee ran down the hall to the head librarian's office. "Miss Merriweather!" he called.
"No running," said Mrs. Merriweather, without looking up.
"But there's a lion!" said Mr. McBee. "In the library!"
"Is he breaking any rules?" asked Miss Merriweather. She was very particular about rule breaking.
"Well, no," said Mr. McBee. "Not really."
"Then leave him be."
--Library Lion by Michelle Knudsen, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes, p. 1-2.
A lion enters the library, and Miss Merriweather, the head librarian who's a stickler for rules, says that as long as he doesn't break any rules, he can stay. The lion loves the library, especially story hour, and begins to come every day, helping out by dusting off encyclopedias with his tail, licking envelopes, carrying children on his back. Everyone is happy except Mr. McBee, the circulation desk librarian, who wants to get rid of the lion.
One day, Miss Merriweather has an accident in the library. The lion runs to get help, and when Mr. McBee won't follow him, the lion breaks the rules and roars to get his attention. Mr. McBee runs to tattle on him, and discovers Miss Merriweather. The lion leaves, because he knows he's broken the rules—and he doesn't return. Everyone misses the lion, especially Miss Merriweather—and finally Mr. McBee realizes what he had to do. He searches until he finds the lion, and invites him back. And the next day, the lion comes back--and Miss Merriweather breaks her own rules and runs to meet him.
This is a delightful, warm, entertaining story about friendship, rules that should sometimes be broken, and a love of books that should please many readers, especially those who love reading. This book leaves the reader with a cozy feeling about libraries.
Knudsen's (Fish and Frog) imaginative text moves nicely, with gentle humor infused throughout, greatly adding to the enjoyment of the story. The humor and fun begin immediately, when the lion walks into the library. Mr. McBee runs to tell Miss Merriweather that there's a lion in the library—something that would make most people run—and Miss Merriweather is super calm, caring only about whether the lion is breaking the rules. This quiet humor is echoed throughout the book, poking gentle fun at adults who don't know what to do because it's not in the rules.
The text is long, though on some pages it is nicely broken up by smaller, accompanying images, and the humor and entertaining fantasy keep the reader's interest. Still, visually the amount of text may put some readers off—until they begin reading. It's well worth the time and effort.
There is a steadying layer of real-world setting and experience (the details about the library, the people being slightly afraid of the lion at first) that makes the fantasy elements work all the better, allowing the reader to dream that they could really happen. The library has a timeless quality, covering both libraries of the past with a card catalogue, and more modern libraries with computer screens, and this allows the story to speak to both young and older readers, and evoke memories of libraries they have used.
The text introduces the characters well, their introductions unfolding naturally in the story. The lion is depicted as a friendly, gentle lion who loves to be read to, and his delight in the stories (and his controlled temper tantrum when they're through) is something that many readers will identify with. Miss Merriweather, especially, is an enjoyable character with her absolute lack of fear of the lion, her sternness over the rules, and her clear devotion to books. Through her putting the lion to work when he arrives early for story time, and her absolute acceptance of him as long as he follows the rules, the lion feels useful, gains a place in the library, and gains friends—and this adds to the good-feeling in the book. The voices of the main characters, both through their dialogue and the body language in the text, are strong and unique; it is always clear who is speaking. Knudsen also allows the reader to figure out some things for themselves, which is refreshing.
Mr. McBee, with his dislike of the lion brings some tension to the story, and it is particularly heartwarming when, in the end, Mr. McBee is the one who invites the lion back. Miss Merriweather's accident, the lion's rescue of her, and the lion leaving the library provide a strong climax that moves into a satisfying ending. The ending is especially touching when Miss Merriweather, who repeatedly tells people "No running," even when running seems to fit the situation (such as getting her help after her accident) herself runs through the library to greet the returning lion.
A small point that felt unbelievable in the story, and for me detracted from the story, was when Miss Merriweather was lying on the floor and asked for help after only breaking her arm. She seems so independent and strong, it seems strange that she could not get up. A broken leg might have been a bit more believable.
One other small thing did not quite work for me—the extra line at the end of the story reminding us that sometimes there's a good reason to break rules. We were already told this, and it seemed awkward and forced. The story text seemed to end naturally on the previous page, when Miss Merriweather ran to see the lion and didn't listen about breaking the rules. But this does not detract from the satisfaction of the story ending, or the story as a whole.
The happy ending is heartwarming and satisfying, and reminds readers that sometimes there is a good reason to break rules, that friendship is important, and that we can all find a place in this world.
Visually, the text is a dark brown, which works well with the muted browns and other colors in the illustrations.
Hawkes' (Weslandia, When Giants Come to Play) gentle yet lively illustrations work well with the text, although the muted palette of browns and dark hues may seem dull to some readers. At times I would have liked to see more brilliant color to match the characters. The acrylic-and-pencil illustrations are expressive, most especially in the people and the lion; Hawkes captures facial expressions and body language exceptionally well, and it is always clear what characters are feeling. The main characters also seem unique, with Miss Merriweather appearing stern but kind, Mr. McBee appearing awkward, uptight, and tattling, and the lion clearly friendly and kind. Hawkes' choice of clothing for the characters fits them well, especially Mr. McBee (which greatly adds to the humor and to Mr. McBee's character). Hawkes has a keen eye for people and animals.
The illustrations echo and build on the text, and Hawke adds details of his own that enhance the story, the characters, and the mood, such as Mr. McBee's clothing which adds to his uptightness, that it is raining when Mr. McBee goes out searching for the lion, and, when Miss Merriweather is obviously sad and missing the lion, staring out the window, we see a drooping, dying plant in the windowsill, a metaphor for her distress. Hawkes also provides an awareness of multiculturalism, which is important. Hawkes also includes many details that make the library seem real and familiar, as well as a friendly place to be—a drop slot for books, bean bag chairs in the story area, posters on the walls and desks, book carts, etc.
Many of the borderless illustrations take up most of one page, while others take up the entire spread, or two or more smaller images accompany the text. The soft smudged edges of the illustrations gently fade into the negative space on the page, and this lack of borders or hard edges adds to the gentleness of the images, as do the soft colors. It also draws our focus to what is important in the illustration. Extraneous details, such as written words or illustrations on books or posters fade into the background and leave the focus on the story.
This is an enjoyable story, written and illustrated with humor and whimsey, and establishing libraries as cozy places to be. A great read! Highly recommended.
-Added February 2007
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