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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
by Eva Montanari
Houghton Mifflin,(November 2007)
I was really looking forward to my birthday.
I was sure I was getting a doll.
I already had the baby carriage and embroidered socks from when I was younger, ready and waiting for him.
So as I opened the present, you can imagine how disappointed I was when I discovered he didn't have any curls, freckles, or chubby little hands.
"It's much better than a doll, Alice," my mum said. "It's alive. It tells stories. It will stay with you all your life."
I fought back my tears. "Sure, but where do I put my socks?"
--My First . . . by Eva Montanari, p. 1-5.
Have you ever really wanted something for your birthday--something that everyone else seems to have--and then not gotten it? In My First... , that's what happens to Alice. All her friends have dolls. Alice wants one, too. But instead, she's given something her mother says is even better--it's alive, it will tell her stories, and it will stay with Alice her whole life. Alice is disappointed, and pretends her gift is a doll. For a while, she gets away with it, hiding it in blankets in her baby carriage, telling her friends it's asleep so they can't look at it. Over time, Alice starts to really like her gift, and the stories it tells her and the way that it makes her think of her own stories. But then one day, her friends find a way to make Alice reveal what's really in her baby carriage. They laugh at her when she tries to explain, and Alice runs away from them, angry and upset, but she soon finds that she really wants to find out how the story ends that her birthday gift--a book--has to tell her. She runs back to get it, and finds her friends curled up with her book, absorbed in its stories. So Alice sits down to join them, contented. My First... is a wonderful story with a great build up of anticipation that ends in a nice surprise, and a story that celebrates and encourages reading and individuality.
Montanari (A Very Full Morning) creates a delightful feeling of anticipation and suspense as she cleverly withholds exactly what Alice got for her birthday, instead of the doll she hoped for. Montanari instead focuses on details--on the attributes Alice wanted her gift to have that it doesn't (no curls, freckles, or chubby little hands); on the ways that she hides her gift from her friends' view (telling them he's fragile, sick, or sleeping, which is why 'he' is wrapped in blankets), on how her gift acts with her and what he gives her (that he tells her stories, is polite, and never asks to hear her stories but makes her think of her own), and on the ways he is not like her friends' dolls (does not have hair that will grow back, a loud voice, or a button to push to hear his voice). Montanari doesn't divulge exactly what Alice's gift is until two-thirds of the way through the book. This built-up suspense will have readers eagerly turning the pages to find out exactly what the gift is. I found such delight in discovering that Alice's gift was a book. With Montanari's skillful writing, it was both a surprise and a fitting revelation.
While I love the concept of Alice's gift being a book (not a doll as she pretends), I wasn't sure I completely believed that a girl would take to pushing a book about in a stroller as a replacement for a doll, and for so long, or that she would come to think of it having doll-like attributes or a personality. Still, this did not take away from my utter enjoyment of the book; I love My First... and its focus on reading. It appeals to the book lover in me.
My First... is told in a colloquial first-person voice, which makes the story more immediate and personal, and brings an almost confiding feeling to the text. It also brings easy reader identification. Alice grows and changes throughout the book, moving from being disappointed in her gift to loving it, and readers may move through this with her. The ending is believable and satisfying, though I would have liked just a beat or two more in the text to wrap it up.
My First... celebrates books and reading, as well as non-conformity and individuality, showing us that you can enjoy something different from the norm or the current fad, and that if it's something truly enjoyable or valuable, others will also come to enjoy it. I like how Montanari veers away from sexism (girls only liking dolls), by showing us Alice, and then all three girls, enjoying a book instead. I also really like how Montanari shows peer pressure and realistic reactions from Alice's friends--with her friends initially laughing at her--and then turns their reactions around by having Alice's friends discover, all by themselves, the joy of a good book. This makes Alice's return to claim her book all the sweeter and stronger.
Montanari is a gifted writer and illustrator; she has a great sense of pacing and tension, character motivation, and a child-like thinking in both her text and illustrations. Her text has a strong voice, believable dialogue, and she uses many specific and interesting details to bring a richness to the story and make it feel more real. Montanari brings some details from the beginning of the story into the end, which helps bring a sense of continuity and of the character or story existing outside of the book, such as Alice wanting to use her embroidered socks on a doll in the beginning, and in the end using them as bookmarks. Montanari's illustrations are creative, vibrant, and quirky, and her illustrations and text work perfectly together, each showing details that the other does not.
Montanari's acrylic, oil, and colored pencil illustrations are whimsical and free flowing, with a deliberately skewed and wonky perspective. The wonky perspectives bring a sense of movement, provide visual interest, and spark the reader's imagination and sense of possibility. Montanari makes great use of pattern, brush strokes, and layered colors to add visual interest and depth. Her characters are illustrated as elongated figures with heads much larger and feet much smaller than regularly proportioned bodies. She plays with perspective a lot to add to the impact of the illustration and evoke emotion, such as Alice's arms and legs becoming tiny while sitting on her mother's lap, emphasizing her smallness, and the exaggerated spindly height of Alice's stroller's legs to show Alice preventing her friends from looking in the stroller, or not wanting them to see. The girls' hair styles are fun, with their entire hair or bits of it standing straight up into the sky.
Most of the time Alice is prominent, usually wearing red pants and a red-and-white striped shirt which helps her stand out, but there are a few illustrations with Alice and her friends where she is not the central focus, and if you haven't looked at the other pages carefully it might even be hard to pick her out. I would have preferred a greater distinction between her and the red-haired girl. Colors from Alice's clothing, hair, or body are usually echoed in the background or objects around her, pulling each illustration together visually. Although some bright colors are used, they are often muted through the use of shadow and darker layers on or around them. The brightest illustrations are, appropriately, when Alice is hopeful or happy. Dad or grandpa is not mentioned in the text, and is kept low-key in the illustrations as well.
Backgrounds have great scumbling and layers of color that bring depth and life into the illustrations. Foreground details include only what is necessary to tell the story, while backgrounds are usually washes of color with some hints at detail or wonky perspectives. There is so much to look at in each illustration, even just the layered texture and colors. Visually, My First... is a treat, though some readers may find the strange perspectives and muted colors disturbing.
This is the perfect gift for any book lover, young or old. If you're looking for a book that celebrates the joy of books or individuality, or you just want a great read with beautiful art, run and pick yourself up a copy. You won't regret it.
-Added October 6, 2007
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