Scene: two children stand in the late afternoon sunlight comparing shadows. The little brother says, “Look! I’m long!” His older sister replies, “I’m longer.”
Siblings give us our first experience of the tyranny of comparison. Birth order programs us for life, and, in childhood, where you fit in is as obvious as your shoe size or those marks on the doorframe. It’s no wonder our position in the family is such a rich source of material for picture books.
Hoogie in the Middle, by Stephanie McLellan and illustrated by Dean Griffiths, features a family of benevolently hairy monsters who look like a cross between a domestic long-haired cat and one of Sendak’s wild things (the horned one in the striped pullover), resplendent in My Little Pony colours. Pumpkin, the eldest child, is blue like Mom. Baby Tweezle is green like Dad, but middle child Hoogie is magenta, like herself. Hoogie feels ignored and neglected, neither as cute as Tweezle, nor as competent as Pumpkin. Finally she has a meltdown, and Dad and Mom helicopter in to comfort her.
This picture book is a terrific example of words and images each doing their own job. The text gives us movement (as Pumpkin skips and Tweezle toddles), melody (as Hoogie whispers, “Too big. Too small. No room for me at all”), and, most of all, metaphor (“Sometimes Hoogie feels like the hole in the middle of a donut”).
The pictures carry the emotional weight. The composition of family scenes says it all: close pairings of parent and child leave Hoogie floating alone against a white background; Hoogie looks sideways across a double-page spread but nobody is looking back; her sister and brother are enclosed in circles and triangles while she’s isolated on a facing page.
Griffiths captures the body language of children (well, of childlike horned, fanged, cat-like things) perfectly. The final spread shows Hoogie swinging between her parents’ hands, her posture a subtle combination of joy and tension, triumph and just a tiny bit of anger.
In the Tree House by Andrew Larsen demonstrates another potential for the picture book, that of a parallel story enacted in the illustrations (ably provided in this instance by Dušan Petricic) Here, the first-person narration tells of a boy who has constructed a tree house with his father and older brother.
In a few perfect words, Larsen captures the idyllic nature of that summer: “We had comics. We had cards.” But the following summer arrives, and the older brother has found his own friends and outgrown the tree house. Our narrator bravely asserts: “So now I’m king of the castle. I can do whatever I want up here,” as Petricic’s illustration gives lie to the statement with an image of a hot, solitary, disconsolate little boy gazing out of the tree house door.
The turning point of the story is a blackout. I’ve never seen a picture book that so perfectly captures the pleasure of such an event. Stars appear in the suddenly dark urban sky, the neighbours congregate on the street (giving Petricic the opportunity to create one of his trademark lineups of varied humanity). The older brother returns to the tree house, where the younger had been sitting when the lights went out. We know it’s not for good – older brothers grow up and move away – but for this one night the world is as it should be.
Larsen’s text is full of delights, simple sensory details that capture a mood. In the opening scene our hero sits in the tree house crunching ice cubes to cool off. In the summer night, “Televisions glow in the windows. Air conditioners hum. It sounds like I’m inside a fridge. It feels like I’m inside an oven.”
To these crisply written words, Petricic brings his own rich dimension of narrative and character. For example, on that final night the boys play cards. From the text we know they play crazy eights and war. In the pictures we see the little brother throwing himself into the game with all his might, slapping down his card with gusto, winning, letting some resentment go. But the parallel visual story goes beyond such moments to provide a subplot involving the older brother. Petricic shows us that the boy is kind of dorky – tucked in, bespectacled (just like his dad), with his jeans riding too high on his waist. His new friends are much cooler; his position with them is probably tenuous. Of course he has to reject his little brother and the childish pleasures of the tree house. But he has missed it – drinking lemonade, reading Sidekick Jimmy comics by flashlight. And on this one night, who’s going to see him up there in the dark?
Long shadow or not so long; oldest, youngest, or in the middle; the truth is that it’s all hard, this business of siblings and family and growing up. A hug helps, so does stargazing. So do good stories of fluffy pink monsters and skinny, jug-eared boys in trees.