Burglars, Thieves, and a Classic Picture Book Trope
When reading a book like Mac Barnett & Christian Robinson’s Leo: A Ghost Story, one is immediately struck by the old-fashioned sensibility of the endeavor. PW said that there was a “retro look of the art” and Kirkus went further saying, “Robinson creates a vintage 1950s-’60s feel.” The feel extends beyond the art, however. In many ways Barnett has conjured up a tale that relies heavily on a favorite trope of picture books. Mainly, the ousted outsider attaining glory and love by catching a nasty thief in a home.
I first noticed this trend when I read Leo and had an eerie sense of deja vu. If you haven’t read the book yourself, allow me to summarize. Leo is a ghost. Ghosts are frightening to people. He is lonely. His only friend thinks he’s imaginary. Then one night a burglar breaks into her home and he scares the miscreant with a sheet and traps him in a cupboard. Sound familiar? Allow me to introduce you to my friend Crictor.
Crictor by Tomi Ungerer (1958) is actually a rather different case. Unlike Leo he incurs only one moment of true fear at the beginning of his tale and proceeds to be petted and beloved for the rest of the book. His capture of the thief is merely a plot point that allows him to be fawned upon by the larger populace at the end. Note too how we say that Robinson has a classic feel, but Ungerer (who is now considered classic) was never afraid to include something like a sharp knife in the mix. These days we don’t let our thieves carry weapons.
If Leo bears any similarities to a fellow sad sack protagonist then it’s Pinkerton. Few would say that Steven Kellogg presented images more dangerous than Tomi Ungerer’s, but where Ungerer opted for a mere knife, Kellogg originally went for the firearms. If you’ve ever seen Pinkerton, Behave (1979) on a banned books list, this old cover is the reason why:
Note the comment on the second image below:
There’s actually a rather lovely PW piece called Steven Kellogg on Why He Reworked a ‘Pinkerton’ Scene in Response to Sandy Hook. You can see the before and after here:
Then there was Max the Flying Sausage Dog (2014) by Arthur Robins, a British title that I’ll confess I’m not as familiar with, though the trope shows up again:
And I’m going to throw in Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great (2014) by Bob Shea not because it really fits this theme (burglars in homes being stopped by the protagonist) but because I just like the sequence:
Far more along the Barnett’s storyline was The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau (1990) by Jon Agee . If memory serves (and it’s been a while) Felix’s paintings come to life and eventually people dislike them. Then one saves the day and sounds the alarm when a thief tries to steal the king’s crown. Does that sound correct? Help me out here, librarians.
That’s just a start. I’m sure that there are more out there.
It’s very interesting to compare the look of the burglars over time. Kellogg’s was originally and undoubtedly the most menacing, both in terms of personal appearance and actions. Christian Robinson’s is far more of the gentleman thief, no weapon in evidence. And yes, all burglars are depicted as white. This is not something I think will change anytime soon. Nor does it need to. We can look for diversity in a lot of areas but it’s going to be quite a while before we seek it in depictions of crime for children. QUITE a while.
So what can you do with this information? Hello, instant storytime! Back in the day Curious George Books and Toys actually did a burglar-centric storytime once, complete with mug shots and black domino masks. Obviously you’d have to know your community to pull that one off (some folks might find burglars less than entirely appealing on a preschool level). But you won’t lack for content, I’ll guarantee you 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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