Reading Too Much Into It: When Simple Picture Book Plots Take on Lives of Their Own
Excluding the very rare exceptions here and there, it’s fairly safe to say that when picture books are adapted into big screen movie sensations they are inevitably packed to the gills full of unnecessary awfulness. Consider the fate of The Cat in the Hat if you doubt me at all. Now there are exceptions to every rule, but for every Where the Wild Things Are there are twenty or so live action How the Grinch Stole Christmases to take their place (Seuss books are particularly egregious offenders in this way).
My philosophy is, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. And as the mother of an almost two-year-old with an irrepressible appetite for picture book and easy book fare (not that there are any attempts at repressing being made) I’ve found that if a parent reads a book over and over enough that parent will start to construct elaborate subplots and backstories for the characters. Here then are some backstories you could easily turn into full-length feature films. If you had to, anyway.
My Aunt Came Back by Pat Cummings – I see Will Smith producing this one, and I’m not even joking about this. The plot, if you’re familiar with it, consists of a young girl’s recitation of the different things her aunt has given her after her worldwide trips. Example: “My aunt came back from Timbuktu / She brought me back a wooden shoe.” Read the book enough times, though, and one fact is crystal clear. The aunt is an international spy. Of course she is! She’s going to Pakistan one day and Beijing the next and then leaving clues and pieces of evidence with her unsuspecting niece. This interpretation gives a whole different feeling to the end of the book where the girl says gleefully, “But this time she’s taking me too”. As a alibi, undoubtedly. Clever aunt. By the way, who’s a person gotta kill around here to get this board book back in print? Seriously, the fact that I can’t order new copies of this for my library system is a crime against man.
Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman – Full credit to my brother-in-law for pointing out what this book is really about. Have you guys noticed that dystopian and post-apocalyptic tales are everywhere? Well, meet the original post-apocalyptic hellscape that serves as the backdrop to this tale. A baby bird searches a scorched earth for his mother, encountering various still living reminders of a world that once was. About the point you get to the abandoned (some might say burned out) car you get suspicious. The only signs of human existence are a distant boat at the bottom of a cliff and the scary snort that never reveals itself to be anything but sentient metal. In fact, that’s how I see the book. The machines rebelled against man and war broke out. The humans were all put down and now the world is ruled by diggers and cars and various forms of transportation. They leave the animals in peace, but that’s because none of them have ever shown signs of intelligence. That is . . . until the birth of a singular baby bird! Bum bum BUMMMMM.
Go, Dog, Go! by P.D. Eastman – If you can sit through futuristic P.D. Eastman then you can certainly sit through a glimpse into the world of Go, Dog, Go! that I would have missed had it not been (again) thanks to my brother-in-law. The book consists of many dogs doing many things and they all appear, for the most part, to be male. The exception lies in two dogs that have this strange little exchange throughout the book. One will ask if her friend likes her hat. He’ll bluntly say no and they’ll move on. And this continues four or five times until, at last, at a wild party he tells her he likes her hat and she drives away in his car. Not the greatest moral, but you begin to wonder what the nature of their relationship really is. I see them as kind of the When Harry Met Sally of the easy book world. But if she has any guts she’ll leave him cold and soon. That boy’s no good, honey. Worse, he has terrible taste in hats.
Ready, Steady, Go, Mr. Croc! by Jo Lodge – I don’t mind telling you that this British import with its enormously clever paper constructions was derailed for me (slightly) when my husband pointed that that Mr. Croc’s wolf friend Wilf had a name that sounded suspiciously similar to Wolf I’d Like to F***. Wilf. Yeah, ask me if I’m even capable of saying the poor guy’s name now without giggling. And that’s before I noticed the sheer number of relationships going on in these books. The Mr. Croc titles are probably where you can pinpoint my descent into madness. Several of his books involve his friends, and I’ve started to construct these intricate relationship notes between characters. Clearly Lulu the cheetah and Wilf have a thing for one another, but Lulu’s rich (she owns a plane and excels at tennis) and Wilf still works on a farm. Can their love survive? As for Elsie the elephant, I suspect that she’s been pining for Zebedee the zebra, but it’s all for naught at this point. Moving on . . .
Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss – Any Dr. Seuss book lends itself to interpretation. That’s why we’ve such terrible movies of them out there. Hop on Pop rivals Go, Dog, Go! in random chicanery, but there is one storyline in there that I’m particularly interested in. That would be the saga of Mr. and Mrs. Brown. Mr. Brown appears to be happily married to Mrs. Brown until one day in a chance accident involving a see-saw he’s flung out of town. When he comes back he’s suddenly quite close to a mysterious Mr. Black. Are they in love? Is Mr. Black just his rabbi? Pup’s not talking but Mrs. Brown is nowhere in sight. What is going on here?
The entire Bizzy Bear series by Benji Davies – Like the Mr. Croc series, Bizzy Bear is a British import that lends itself to WAY too many thoughts in my head. Bizzy participates on a construction crew in one book and takes a vacation in another. Nothing mind boggling. I read quite a few of his books before I realized something. Bizzy’s got a thing for pretty lady dogs. In his pirate adventure, his firefighting outing, and his vacation Bizzy ends up in the company of a pretty dog, though it never appears to be the same dog twice. The man knows what he likes, I’ll give him that much.
Now I’m off to go read some A.S. Byatt, because much more of this and you’ll start to see me mouthing off about the hidden meanings found in Knuffle Bunny. Trust me when I say you do NOT want to be around for that.
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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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