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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
by Polly Dunbar
Ben ripped open his present. Inside was a penguin. "Hello, Penguin!" said Ben.
"What shall we play?" said Ben.
Penguin said nothing.
"Can't you talk?" said Ben.
Penguin said nothing.
Ben tickled Penguin.
Penguin didn't laugh.
Ben made his funniest face for Penguin.
Penguin didn't laugh.
--Penguin Polly Dunbar, p. 2-5.
Sometimes it's hard to be patient. Ben gets frustrated when he talks to Penguin and Penguin never answers him back. He goes through all sorts of contortions trying to get Penguin to respond, talking to him, entertaining him, and finally gets so frustrated that he yells at Penguin. A passing lion doesn't like Ben yelling, and swallows Ben--and that's when Penguin springs into action to save the day. Ben pops out, safe and sound, and discovers he really does have a friend in Penguin--and Penguin can talk, when he's ready to. This is an entertaining book about friendship, patience, frustration, and feeling ignored, though at times it falters a little.
Dunbar's (Flyaway Katie, Dog Blue) brief, simple text soon will have the reader wondering, along with Ben, if Penguin will ever talk, and if he won't, what Ben will do. Tension is built by Penguin refusing to speak, but simply looking at Ben and the reader in silence. Interest is kept for a while by Ben trying one silly or different thing after another, all in an attempt to get Penguin to talk, and the reader wondering if this time it will work. Still, Penguin's lack of response and his passiveness throughout most of the book becomes a little wearing; it is mostly one character carrying the story, and the lack of response doesn't bring any variation until late into the book. For me, the text slowed down a lot after the first few repetitions of Penguin not responding.
Penguin finally responds when Ben ignores him; Penguin ignores him back. This seems to be a turning point, but after coming back to earth after Ben sent him to space, Penguin goes back to being unresponsive for the next few pages, eventually bringing frustration not only for Ben, but also, possibly, for the reader. For me, there were too many pages of Penguin not responding at all.
Dunbar clearly understands a child's (and many adults') frustration at repeatedly being ignored or not receiving a response; after many fun, silly attempts at getting Penguin to respond, Ben starts to get irritable, prodding Penguin, sticking out his tongue, making fun of Penguin, ignoring Penguin and finally yelling at him and offering him to a passing lion. Here the text has faint echoes of sibling relationships and children's way of coping when they are frustrated or feel ignored.
Dunbar uses a surprising plot twist to have the lion eat Ben instead of Penguin, because Ben was too noisy. Tender-hearted readers may find it upsetting to see Ben being swallowed or hear that he's been "eaten" (it disturbed me), but they only have to turn three pages before they get reassurance that Ben is safe and alive; he quickly pops out, looking happy and excited, when Penguin saves him. It may also help some readers that the lion is completely blue, suggesting that he is an imaginary lion, and that the ending is heartwarming and uplifting. The crisis point in the book may encourage readers not to yell at each other or have loud tantrums--although I don't like the veiled threat in the book. Still, I may be more sensitive to this than the average reader.
That Penguin finally acted when Ben was in danger, to help save Ben, redeems Penguin for "ignoring" Ben (or perhaps not knowing how to talk) and brings a warm, uplifting feeling--the previously passive character turns into a hero. Adding to this warmth is Penguin's turn-around--he "talks", albeit in pictures, recounting all of Ben and Penguin's adventures together, and summing it all up with love. This makes the ending completely satisfying, and also shows character growth and change, and true friendship and love. The ending also suggests that if we are patient and put something into a relationship, we may get something wonderful out of it, such as love, loyalty, or even a friend protecting us. And that there are different ways of being a friend and of communicating; some people communicate or speak less than others, but what they do say or do may be of great importance.
Dunbar's mixed media illustrations (which appear to be ink and tempera) are beautiful; they are uncluttered and light, with fluid lines that make the characters come alive, and a generous amount of white space that makes the characters pop into focus. Dunbar creates strong, evocative characters and emotions through only a few lines. Ben is adorable in green pajamas with white stars on them, rosy cheeks, a little pug nose, and hair that stands on end. He appears young through his hair, face, size, and clothing. Penguin, too, is cute, though has the same expression (which becomes a little dull) until he comes alive when Ben is threatened.
Ben and the penguin always stand out in each illustration, most especially because of all the white space, and the way their color contrasts with the white space. This keeps the focus on them and the interaction. There is no background detail, no setting, just a few lines to show the floor--but somehow, the background doesn't feel needed.
The layout of the illustrations vary, from illustrations that encompass two pages, to multiple smaller illustrations that show a sequence of events, and that are paired with a few short sentences. This helps keep the text moving along nicely, as each sentence is paired with an illustration.
The moment of climax, when Penguin bites Lion on the nose to rescue Ben, is the largest illustration in the book, Lion's head taking up one complete page and a quarter, and Penguin taking up some of the rest, and this helps underscore the importance of the moment. It also underscores Penguin's bravery--he is so much smaller than Lion, yet still stands up to Lion.
Penguin's dialogue--when he finally speaks near the end of the book--is depicted through bright, colorful images, like a child's drawings, representing the things that Ben and Penguin did. This works well, instantly and visually giving the reader a kind of summary of the story, and suggesting that Penguin speaks differently or in another language than humans, but that Ben can still understand him. The page is one of the most colorful, and also gives the reader a sense of Penguin's warmth. The closing illustration is sweet and endearing, with Ben picking up Penguin and hugging him, a sweet smile on his face, and Penguin saying 'I love you,' through a heart shown in his speech bubble.
A small bonus illustration begins the book on the inside cover page, where the present Ben later opens is shown with a label for Ben.
I did not enjoy this as much as Dunbar's Flyaway Katie, but it is still a fantasy book worth checking out.
This book encourages friendship, patience, and sticking up for your friend. It also reminds readers that we each communicate in our own way. Recommended.
-Added June 12, 2007
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Go back to Finding Friends: That Sense of Belonging to find great Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach.
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