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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
by Linda Smith, illustrated by Marla Frazee
Harcourt (reprint),(October 2007)
On a grubby little hill,
in a dreary little funk,
Mrs. Biddlebox rolled over
on the wrong side of her bunk.
The birds gave her a headache.
There were creakies in her chair.
A breeze blew dank and dreary
and mussied up her hair.
--Mrs. Biddlebox by Linda Smith, illustrated by Marla Frazee, p. 2-3.
Have you ever woken up grumpy without knowing why, or had a bad day? Mrs. Biddlebox has. From the moment she wakes up, everything feels wrong--even her breakfast is awful, with bitter tea and hard crumpets. So Mrs. Biddlebox decides that she'll cook the rotten morning into a cake, and eat it. She gathers up the gloom, and everything else that's made her day bad, and beats it into dough, becoming happier as she does so. The cake turns out sweet and merry, and so does her tea. She eats the whole thing, and welcomes in the night, feeling better. This book is a wonderful metaphor that will speak to anyone who's ever had a rotten day, and it gives hope that you can make a bad day into a good one, or at least a good evening.
Smith's (Mrs. Crump's Cat) writing is powerful and dynamic, with a vivid voice. She uses strong, colorful words to make the story come alive, evoke a sensory or emotional response, and emphasize how Mrs. Biddlebox feels, even in her setting: "grubby little hill," "A breeze blew dank and dreary." Smith also uses partially made-up words (creakies, grumblies, whizzled) which bring a sense of fun, while still making intuitive sense. These two qualities--strong words and made-up ones that fit the context--make the text vibrant.
Strong verbs, precise descriptions and metaphors also add to the full quality of the text ("Mrs. Biddlebox slammed the door on morning").
Smith's text is written in rhyming prose, with the second and fourth line of every stanza rhyming with each other. Since not every line rhymes, this leaves some openness to Smith's word choice and language, and helps the text feel unconstrained (as do the made up words). Smith never misses a beat; all the words feel carefully chosen for the way they work together, and the text has a lyrical quality to it.
Mrs. Biddlebox starts out with a problem--a rotten morning--but she solves this by deciding to cook the rotten morning and turn it into cake. We see her mood change from grumpy ("tromped out into morning," "stabbed the dreary lot") to a gleeful physical and emotional release as she punches, whips, and beats the dough, and then stomps it when it rises. This shows character change, as well as a wise truth--focused physical activity like this can help release emotion and make one feel better. The delight Mrs. Biddlebox takes in changing her day encourages readers to do the same (perhaps with play doh and their own metaphor), and is a great way for readers to get their grumpies out.
As Mrs. Biddlebox starts to feel better, Smith uses words to reflect that, and to bring a lighter, happier mood ("laughed gleefully," "day baked merrily," "turning out sweet"). Every word feels carefully chosen to reveal just the right meaning, tone, and emotional layers. Smith was a talented writer. The closing stanza echoes the opening one, moving outward to the grubby little hill, but this time, Mrs. Biddlebox is content and falls asleep. This brings a pleasing sense of repetition and closure, though I would have liked a few more words to reinforce Mrs. Biddlebox's content and changed mood. Still, it is shown in the stanza before.
The text and illustrations work well together, each complimenting the other, the illustrations showing things that the text does not, and vice versa.
Frazee (Walk On!: A Guide for Babies of All Ages, Roller Coaster) captures the feeling in Smith's text and builds on it. Smith gives Frazee some wonderful images to use, and Frazee runs with them--showing the sky rolled up like a giant carpet, the sun with rays like yarn, all in beautiful pencil strokes and imagery. Frazee's grease-pencil-and-colored-ink illustrations are powerful and evocative, and don't shrink from showing emotion. Frazee makes Mrs. Biddlebox look delightfully grumpy with frowning eyebrows that make her eyes disappear, a heavy nose, and a deep, chiseled frown; wiry, out-of-control black hair pulled tightly back from her face and standing upright; a shapeless black dress; and angry body language. Mrs. Biddlebox's surroundings are appropriately gloomy in the beginning, with dark backgrounds, and what little color there is, is dark (brown, blue-grey). Even the household objects look heavy and dark (a black kettle, a dark metal pot, a old clunky TV). Yet Frazee manages to bring some lightness and play by inserting a white goose that accompanies Mrs. Biddlebox everywhere and takes part in all the action. Young readers will enjoy spotting the goose in every spread.
Mrs. Biddlebox is a great character, with clear body language, exaggerated features, and a visible transformation. Strong horizontal lines, used especially in the background and setting, but also in Mrs. Biddlebox herself, add texture, shading, and movement, and, depending on the amount of light or dark used, a sense of heavy grumpiness or lighter contentment. Splashes of pastel color add to the feeling of the book.
As Mrs. Biddlebox changes and becomes lighter in the text, Frazee makes Mrs. Biddlebox and her environment become lighter in the illustrations. As she stuffs the bad day into the pot, the heavy dark background shrinks to a whiff of smoke-like darkness rising from the pot, while all around is a light, bright white. This white background remains as Mrs. Biddlebox punches and stomps on the dough, bringing a greater feeling of lightness, and relief from the almost oppressive darkness found earlier. Readers also get a glimpse of her pink underwear as she jumps on the dough, which adds humor. When the cake is baking, Mrs. Biddlebox's frown disappears as she dances in a circle around the oven, and her body language is satisfied and happier. And then, when Mrs. Biddlebox eats the cake, readers see her open eyes fully for the first time, and a first small smile that moves into a huge, satisfied smile. It is clear that Mrs. Biddlebox now feels good and content, having baked and eaten her rotten day. Frazee adds to this content with subtle details such as flowered china that Mrs. Biddlebox eats out of, a pink tablecloth, and full, satisfied body language. As Mrs. Biddlebox climbs to bed, light shines out brightly from the door like a huge star or burst of sun, and the happy feeling is added to with a blue blanket, multi-colored stars in the sky, and then, on the last spread, huge colorful stars and spirals, the pastel-blue splash of Mrs. Biddlebox's blanket like a piece of blue sky, yellow walls on the house, and bright pink flowers. In the closing illustration, Mrs. Biddlebox's face is one of peace.
I would have liked to see the last few illustrations, especially at the table as Mrs. Biddlebox eats, use less heavy horizontal shading and lines and brighter color, to bring a greater sense of lightness, but the lightness is still quite visible. Frazee shows Mrs. Biddlebox's content and good feeling more than the text does, and this helps bring a satisfying feeling to the ending.
Smith and Frazee are both very talented, and this book is beautifully executed. Young and old readers will easily identify with Mrs. Biddlebox's bad day, and feel satisfied along with her as she turns her day around and finds contentment. Mrs. Biddlebox is a wonderful metaphor about turning grumpiness into contentment, and making a bad day a good one. Highly recommended!
-Added October 13, 2007
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