Review of the Day: Fortune Cookies by A. Bitterman
In the old days, children’s librarians were viewed as the gatekeepers of quality books for youth. That meant that they had to divide the wheat from the chaff. The good from the bad. The sterling from the meh. We still do that to a degree, though standards, like the times we are in, change. You see, there was a moment in history when one of the worst things you could call a children’s book was “novelty”. “Novelty” meant that a book was half a sneeze away from being a mere toy. “Novelty” meant that a book was going to appeal to a kid with fancy doodads and whizbangs, rather than with a good and coherent story. So Pat the Bunny was labeled a novelty and pop-up books were deemed novelties. You rarely saw them on library shelves. Time passed and the good side of novelty books, of those titles you can feel or beep or play with in some manner, has won out in the end. Though you’ll still find some of the weakest picture books soaked in glitter in an effort to appeal to the sparkle-eyed child consumer, when it comes to interactive books a lot of publishers have found a way to combine strong stories with great art. Fortune Cookies might be a good example of this. It has a pull-tab premise, but if you printed it as a regular picture book without a tab in sight it will still stand as a strong title on its own. If it is a novelty then that is only because it is novel in its own right.
One day a small girl received a box full of seven fortune cookies. Dutifully she opens one each day for a week. At first the fortunes are fairly straightforward. Readers can pull the little tabs containing the fortunes out of the cookies, like the first one “You will lose something you don’t need”. The next day the girl loses a tooth. When the next fortune reads “Money is like the wind” she uses her tooth fairy money to buy a kite. Fortunes and real life continue to weave back and forth with the girl losing her kite, finding a cat, losing the cat, making a wish, and ending up at the end with seven little kittens. She names each one after a day of the week, making this not only a book about fortunes and the ups and downs of an average child’s week, but also a handy tool for teaching the concept of Monday through Sunday.
A. (or Albert) Bitterman is the nom de plume of one Pete Cowdin, proprietor of the much lauded, much imitated, never excelled (or so I hear) Reading Reptile bookstore of Kansas City, Missouri. Now I’m a weird reviewer of children’s books. I like to read way more into them than was the author’s intent. And yes, I admit it, when I picked up this book one of my first thoughts aside from “I could really go for a cookie right now” (do you know they make flavored fortune cookies these days?) was “Oh good! A book about free will!” So let’s see how the text stands up to this gleeful reinterpretation. Here we have a girl sent a mysterious box of fortune cookies from “Uncle Albert” (a sly reference to Albert Bitterman himself). When she reads the fortunes they have a tendency to either come true or allude to a true situation that will occur. Rather than try to influence her fate, however, our diminutive protagonist just lets events unfold as they may. It’s the child reader who has to go back to see whether or not the fortune was on the mark or if the kid is stretching things a bit to justify the fortunes’ existence. Expect a lot of backing and forthing with this book, then. It might be fun to ask a child if they think the fortunes are always true or if she just wants them to be true instead. You might get a greater variety of answers than you’d initially expect.
Of course, one thing I liked about the pull tab fortune cookies is the fact that the fortunes inside are very realistic. I can’t tell you how sad I get when I open a fortune cookie only to find some vague words of advice rather than an out-and-out fortune. This book acknowledges those hugely frustrating pseudo-fortunes (faux fortunes?) by including a couple in the text. There’s “Money is like the wind”, and “Try to find the good with the bad.” Blah. Gimme “You will meet a tall dark stranger” any day of the week over that vagueness.
Chris Raschka has a style that I’ve struggled with over the years. You know how you can respect an illustrator’s art without ever feeling a close and personal connection to it? That’s me. I can see why the man deserves his Caldecott and his laudatory comments, but I’m a representational girl at heart. Raschka’s books can be beautiful, but sometimes I prefer the straight line of a thin-inked pen to these whirling swirling watercolors. In Fortune Cookies Raschka scales back the splatter. He is still wholly and entirely himself, but objects are recognizable and set against a white backdrop for the better part of the book. His heroine with her Ramona-style bowl cut and off-color bangs is a recognizable and relatable kid. His cat (who wears a delightfully woebegone expression when she first picks it up) is definitely all cat, as are her kittens. I also noticed that while Raschka isn’t the type to hide small details in his work, there are larger details that a person might miss on a first pass. For example, at one point the little girl constructs a fort on a rainy day. Later, she relocates her cat and kittens that have taken shelter in, you guessed it, what appears to be the same fort. Bitterman doesn’t specify that this is where they are to be found, but it makes sense in the context of the story. Well played, Raschka sir.
For a time I puzzled over who came up with the design concept for this book. As I mentioned before, if you just turned the fortunes into drawn parts of the book, this wouldn’t have to be a novelty book at all. Was that how Mr. Bitterman envisioned it? Or did some clever soul, whether Mr. Raschka, the editor, or an Art Director, look at the text and suddenly realize, “Fortune cookie fortunes are the perfect size and shape to turn into pull-tabs”? Turns out it was the author’s intent all along, which may explain why the story’s strength matches its novel feel. In fact, unlike a lot of books with tabs (read: Maisy) these tabs not only slip back easily into place but it would take an extraordinarily strong tot to rip them out altogether. Once out, even a single missing tab would mess up a reading of the book. As a result they’ve built the interior of the book out of strong stuff. I wish I could say that the outside was just as sturdy, but unfortunately I can’t. Because the binding has to be flexible enough to house twelve thick, strong pages, the hinge between the covers and the spine is highly prone to getting scuffs and holes and dings. The inside could conceivably last forever, but the outside quails at even the slightest test. Pity.
So you’ve a novelty book, a book of fate versus free will, a tool for teaching the days of the week, and a story with cute kittens to boot. Add in the Raschka and the Bitterman and this is one sweet little story that stands out. Libraries will take to it, children will take to it, adults will take to it, and I took to it. You will too. Take it out. It’s an appealing little number.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent for review from publisher.
Other Blog Reviews: kitri and the animals
Misc: Read this article from the Kansas City Star explaining how much Mr. Cowdin fought to keep this book intact (in a sense).
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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