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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
by Linas Alsenas
Mildred was lonely.
One day she found a stray . . .
. . . puppy.
She decided to bring him home.
Mildred tried to feed the puppy dog food,
and she offered him a bone, but the puppy seemed to like only one thing.
So Mildred named him Peanut.
--Peanut by Linas Alsenas, p. 1-7.
Mildred, an old woman, is lonely--until she discovers what she thinks is a stray puppy (it's really a baby elephant). She takes the "puppy" home, and though the "puppy" doesn't like dog food but instead likes peanuts, and doesn't quite behave like a dog, Mildred doesn't put two and two together. Instead she names her "puppy" Peanut. The two develop a friendship and Mildred isn't lonely any more--until someone recognizes Peanut and takes the elephant back to the circus, where Peanut is happy. Mildred becomes lonely again--until she notices another stray to take in--what she thinks is a kitten, which is really a camel.
This is a funny, sweet, enjoyable book, though it does have a touch of sadness to it. What makes this book particularly funny is the great difference between the text, which tells one story, and the illustrations, which tell another; it's clear through the illustrations that the "puppy" that Mildred brings home is actually a baby elephant. This works especially well because the text uses a straight-man approach, blandly telling a story, that, pictured with the illustrations, becomes hilarious. There are all sorts of clues in the text for Mildred and the reader to pick up on that this is not actually a dog, but rather an elephant; the reader will enjoy knowing this.
This is a case of mistaken identity taken to an extreme, and will appeal especially to young readers. Alsenas skillfully doesn't tell the reader too much, but instead allows the reader to figure some things out (like that Peanut eats peanuts). This keeps the text from becoming repetitive or repeating what exists in the illustrations, and allows for reader satisfaction.
Alsenas has a fantastic sense of timing and pacing; he makes the reader wait for the punch line--that what we can clearly see is an elephant, Mildred is sure is a puppy, and that what we can see is a camel, Mildred is sure is a kitten. There are two series of events that come in threes that make up the bulk of the book, and this also helps with the pacing and the sense of symmetry. The text moves the reader through the story quickly, because of its brevity, its humor, and reader anticipation over what will happen next.
The text starts out with Mildred feeling lonely, and close to the end of the book when Peanut has been taken away, Mildred feels lonely again. This both brings a sense of repetition and familiarity, and brings a bit of sadness. Helping to offset this a little is the knowledge that Peanut is happy back in the circus, and the way that Alsenas cleverly makes the story comes full circle, where Mildred spots another stray (a camel, this time) that she wants to take in. This is pleasing, and helps the reader see that it's not all going to end; Mildred has another friend to love.
However, because the pattern has been that Mildred is lonely, finds a stray, and then that stray is taken away, a sensitive reader may come to the conclusion that Mildred's new friend will also be taken away from her, which is sad. Mildred's loneliness is focused on in the text, and greatly through the illustrations. I wished for a slightly happier ending; I can't help feeling sad for Mildred, knowing what will probably happen again, but that's just me. It's still a funny and sweet story.
Alsenas' colored-pencil-and-ink illustrations are drawn in a cartoon style, with thin black lines outlining all the characters and objects, and the colored pencil bringing texture. Peanut, the "puppy" is drawn as a cute baby elephant, just the right size for old, slighty bent-over Mildred.
Alsenas uses a lot of white space, which helps the characters and their interactions stand out and become the sole focus of each illustration. There is little or no depth to the illustrations; the characters and any setting details all sit in the foreground, with small bits of earth or floor to ground them in the illustration. The illustrations alternate between full spreads and single illustrations per page, which helps bring some visual interest.
Emotion is evoked in the illustrations especially through Mildred's expressive face; it's clear when Mildred is lonely and sad, such as when she loses Peanut, and when she's happier and more content, such as when she has Peanut or her new stray.
Alsenas has a good sense of pacing in the illustrations as well as the text; when Mildred first loses Peanut, a full spread is devoted to this moment, showing Mildred looking very sad, sitting all alone on the bench, a bag of spilled peanuts on the bench next to her. The whole left page is just one of emptiness, showing only a bit of ground. All of these things serves to underscore the loneliness Mildred feels, and increase reader identification and compassion.
This is a touching, moving book, quite funny, yet at times sad. It's a sweet book about friendship, love, and mistaken identity. Recommended.
-Added July 16, 2007
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