Review of the Day: Red by Michael Hall
Almost since their very conception children’s books were meant to teach and inform on the one hand, and to inform one’s moral fiber on the other. Why who can forget that catchy little 1730 ditty from The Childe’s Guide that read, “The idle Fool / Is whipt at School”? It’s got a beat and you can dance to it! And as the centuries have passed children’s books continue to teach and instruct. Peter Rabbit takes an illicit nosh and loses his fancy duds. Pinocchio stretches the truth a little and ends up with a prominent proboscis. Even parents who are sure to fill their shelves with the subversive naughtiness of Max, David, and Eloise are still inclined to indulge in a bit of subterfuge bibliotherapy when their little darling starts biting / hitting / swearing at the neighbors. Instruction, however, is a terribly difficult thing to do in a children’s book. It takes skill and a gentle hand. When Sophie Gets Angry . . . Really Really Angry works because the point of the book is couched in beautiful, lively, eye-popping art, and a story that shows rather than tells. But for every Sophie there are a hundred didactic tracts that some poor child somewhere is being forced to swallow dry. What a relief then to run across Red: A Crayon’s Story. It’s making a point, no doubt about it. But that point is made with a gentle hand and an interesting story, giving the reader the not unpleasant sensation that even if they didn’t get the point of the tale on a first reading, something about the book has seeped deep into their very core. Clever and wry, Hall dips a toe into moral waters and comes out swimming. Sublime.
“He was red. But he wasn’t very good at it.” When a blue crayon in a wrapper labeled “Red” finds himself failing over and over again, everyone around him has an opinion on the matter. Maybe he needs to mix with the other kids more (only, when he does his orange turns out to be green instead). Maybe he just needs more practice. Maybe his wrapper’s not tight enough. Maybe it’s TOO tight. Maybe he’s got to press harder or be sharper. It really isn’t until a new crayon asks him to paint a blue sea that he comes to the shocking realization. In spite of what his wrapper might say, he isn’t red at all. He’s blue! And once that’s clear, everything else falls into place.
A school librarian friend of mine discussed this book with some school age children not too long ago. According to her, their conversation got into some interesting territory. Amongst themselves they questioned why the crayon got the reaction that he did. One kid said it was the fault of the factory that had labeled him. Another kid countered that no, it was the fault of the other crayons for not accepting him from the start. And then one kid wondered why the crayon needed a label in the first place. Now I don’t want to go about pointing out the obvious here but basically these kids figured out the whole book and rendered this review, for all intents and purposes, moot. They got the book. They understand the book. They should be the ones presenting the book.
Because you see when I first encountered this story I applied my very very adult (and very very limited) interpretation to it. A first read and I was convinced that it was a transgender coming-of-age narrative except with, y’know, waxy drawing materials. And I’m not saying that isn’t a legitimate way to read the book, but it’s also a very limited reading. I mean, let’s face it. If Mr. Hall had meant to book to be JUST about transgender kids, wouldn’t it have been a blue crayon in a pink wrapper? No, Hall’s story is applicable to a wide range of people who find themselves incorrectly “labeled”. The ones who are told that they’re just not trying hard enough, even when it’s clear that the usual rules don’t apply. We’ve all known someone like that in our lives before. Sometimes they’re lucky in the way that Red here is lucky and they meet someone who helps to show them the way. Sometimes they help themselves. And sometimes there is no help and the story takes a much sadder turn. I think of those kids, and then I read the ending of “Red” again. It doesn’t help their situation much, but it makes me feel better.
This isn’t my first time at the Michael Hall rodeo, by the way. I liked My Heart Is Like a Zoo, enjoyed Perfect Square, took to Cat Tale, and noted It’s an Orange Aardvark It’s funny, but in a way, these all felt like a prelude to Red. As with those books, Hall pays his customary attention to color and shape. Like Perfect Square he even mucks with our understood definitions. But while those books were all pleasing to the eye, Red makes a sudden lunge for hearts and minds as well. That it succeeds is certainly worth noting.
Now when I was a kid, I ascribed to inanimate objects a peculiar level of anthropomorphizing. A solo game of war turned a deck of cards into a high stakes emotional journey worthy of a telenovela. And crayons? Crayons had their own lives as well. There were a lot of betrayals and broken hearts in my little yellow box. Hall eschews this level of crayon obsession, but in his art I noticed that he spends a great deal of time understanding what a crayon’s existence might entail if they were allowed families and full lives. I loved watching how the points on the crayons would dull or how some crayons were used entirely on a slant, due to the way they colored. I liked how the shorter you are, the older you are (a concept that basically turned my 3-year-old’s world upside down when she tried to comprehend it). I liked how everything that happens to Red stays with him throughout the book. If his wrapper is cut or he’s taped together, that snip and tape stay with him to the end. The result is that by the time he’s figured out his place in the world (and shouldn’t we all be so lucky) he bears the physical cuts and scars that show he’s had a long, hard journey getting to self-acceptance. No mean feat for a book that primarily utilizes just crayon drawings and cut paper, digitally combined.
Not everyone thinks, as I do, that Mr. Hall’s effort is successful. I’ve encountered at least one librarian who told me straight out that she found the book “preachy”. I can see why she’d say that. I mean, it does wear its message on its sleeve. Yet for all that it has a purpose I can’t call it purposeful. What Hall has done so well here is to take a universal story and tell it with objects that almost every reader approaching this book will already be familiar with. These crayons don’t have faces or arms or mouths. They look like the crayons you encounter all the time, yet they live lives that may be both familiar and unfamiliar to readers. And in telling a very simple fish-out-of-water story, it actually manages to make kids think about what the story is actually trying to say. It makes readers work for its point. This isn’t bibliotherapy. It’s bibliodecoding. And when they figure out what’s going on, they get just as much out of it as you might hope. A rare, wonderful title that truly has its child audience in mind. Respectful.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Ferdinand the Bull by Robert Lawson
- Gaston by Kelly DiPucchio
- The Crocodile Who Didn’t Like Water by Gemma Marino
Professional Reviews: Kirkus
Other Reviews: Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast st Kirkus
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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