Review of the Day: Grace for Gus by Harry Bliss
What are the long term benefits of reviewing children’s books on the internet over an extended amount of time? The detriments? Of the benefits I can give only the standard “Maybe I get better” response. The detriments are much more interesting. It is possible that reviewing only children’s literature in a kind of overwrought long-form, the reviewer an elevated sense of importance and self worth. A kind of “I’ve been doing this so long so I must be doing it better than other people” danger. Fortunately, egos are meant to be punctured. There’s always a picture book out there, somewhere, with the capability of making you feel like you just don’t understand anything anymore. Our subject today: Grace for Gus by Harry Bliss. I direct your attention not to the cover, which is what it is, but to the back of the hardcover book. There you will find quotes from an array of creators. Look at those big names! Doreen Cronin, Kate McMullan, Francoise Mouly, David Small, Jamie Lee Curtis, and even Alison Bechdel. Bechdel, for crying out loud! All creators I know and love. Heck, I know and love Harry Bliss myself. He’s an artist that strikes me as capable of making some pretty fantastic books. So why, oh why, oh why do I dislike his latest so intensely? What are these intelligent, witty, urbane people seeing in this book that I do not? If the internet reviewer doubts her prowess when she’s only been at the game fourteen years, I shudder to think how she’ll feel about her own opinions in another ten. I do know one thing though. No matter how many years go by, she’s still not going to be a huge fan of this book.
It’s just another day of school for Grace, a character that looks like an older Marcie from “Peanuts” or a very young Honey Huan from “Doonesbury”. In class she listens to her teacher extol upon the need for the kids to contribute to the “Gus fund”. The class hamster needs a buddy, and on her way out Grace feels a connection with the little guy. A plan is formed. She beelines home and after kissing her dads it’s out her bedroom window she goes and into great big, wild and wonderful Manhattan. Grace is a girl with a plan. First stop, the subway where she whips out her violin and collects money from the adoring public. Next, a quick jaunt to Central Park where she starts drawing caricatures for a fee. Finally, back down to the subways for a bit of athletic pole gymnastics. Filled with familiar faces and references, Grace’s adventures end when the next morning she is able to fill the Gus fund jar to overflowing, to the delight of her classmates and teacher. This story is based on a short film by the author’s son.
Bliss has always been a fan of references and inside jokes placed there for the delight of his adult readers. He’s hardly alone in this. Fellow creators like Bill Joyce love to pepper their art with images harkening back to their younger days. Bliss has shown this tendency for years. The other day my daughter brought home A Very Brave Witch which he did with Alison McGhee almost ten years ago and you can spend an inordinate amount of time tallying up the old time movie references in the corners. With Grace for Gus, the references seem far more personal. There are the usual suspects like Charlie Brown, Nancy, Alfred E. Newman, Pogo, Andy Warhol, etc. Then you get some more interesting and unusual characters. Sanford and Son. Hitchcock. Spike Lee. Even a nod to Alison Bechdel’s musical Fun Home. As an adult I’m going to feel pretty smart about the fact that I can recognize Robert Crumb climbing a flight of subway stairs. And I don’t mind that that’s information kids won’t get. They’ll still recognize Frankenstein or Charlie Brown and will get a mild thrill in the process. What I mind is what happens when Grace heads down into the subway to make money on a train.
And here I pause for a second. Working with children’s books puts a reviewer in constant danger of puritanical thinking and instincts. If I find something objectionable I immediately think of Rev. Lovejoy’s wife on “The Simpsons” crying out her trademark, “Won’t somebody PLEASE think of the children!” I’ll just try to lay out the cold hard facts of the case. Grace goes down into the subway. She boards a train (presumably at 59th Street, though I’ll get to the loosey goosey New York layout later) and takes a seat. On the train there are some familiar caricatures. There’s Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy (albeit older), standing. There’s Patti Smith, giving the reader a knowing glance. And there’s Woody Allen and Donald Trump. Hm. Grace then proceeds to do a pole dance. There is nothing sexy about it. As any New Yorker knows, the kids who do their pole routines on the subway use gymnastics more than anything else. That said, am I the only gal out there that finds it a bit weird that specifically Woody Allen and Donald Trump are applauding (or in Trump’s case, giving a thumbs up to) a pre-pubescent girl spinning on a pole? It almost feels like Bliss is trying to make a point of some sort. Certainly it’s the most sympathetic treatment of both men I’ve seen in a picture book to date. Yes, you could point out that the one shot we get of Trump Tower is cut off so that it reads “Rump Tower” but all in all this is a pretty happy image of our current president. Years ago Maurice Sendak (another artist fond of filling his pages with paeans to his youth) vilified Trump Tower in “We’re All In the Dumps With Jack and Guy”. Whatever Bliss is doing here, it pales in comparison to Sendak’s clarity and chutzpah.
I have mentioned that the book takes place in New York City, specifically Manhattan, but when I started reading this book I initially took this to be in an nameless anytown. There are children’s books in this world that just exude NYC through the fibers of their pages. Think of Bolivar by Sean Rubin, which is so accurate that a view from a subway towards a grocery store is replicated with infinite care. Or what about Lost in NYC by Nadja Spiegelman, where artist Sergio García Sánchez took huge pains to render everything as precisely as possible? As I read Grace for Gus, nothing at first indicated New York to me (which is as much my fault as anything since you can actually see the Chrysler Building from outside Grace’s school). The sidewalks are double wides. The windows on all the floors are free of metal bars (so much so that Grace can just slip out of hers on the first floor without a care in the world). It wasn’t until she entered the subway and I saw the subway worker wearing an incorrectly designed “New York City Metro Transit” patch on her arm that I realized what was going on. The 14th Street station where Grace plays her violin is pristine, with unbroken tilework as far as the eye can see. I tried figuring out her route from the 14th Street stop to Central Park on a subway car curiously unmarked (though the gray seats indicate it might be the green line) to a stop with a yellow 1 and 2 train. Then I started wondering why Bliss didn’t start Grace off at Central Park and then pair the two subway scenes together. Wouldn’t that have been the more logical connection if it isn’t important to keep her travel accurate? It seems that Bliss loves the feel of NYC far more than the specifics, which is entirely his right. But take away the details and you take away the feel of the city itself. The book feels like Manhattan rendered by an outsider. Not a crime (and probably not noticeable by anyone who hasn’t lived there) but it’s hard not to see this as a synthetic stand-in for the real mccoy.
But perhaps the more egregious error in this book is the emotional connection. The whole point of Grace engaging in various nighttime activities to raise money, is her connection to Gus the guinea pig. Gus needs a friend. Why? To keep him from being lonely, one assumes. Grace has no special relationship with the class pet, but after petting the soft white fur between his eyes and getting a lick in return, she feels this deep and abiding connection to the little guy. The trouble is, the reader doesn’t feel the same way. Or at least, not to the extent that we’d understand why she feels the need to sneak out of her room at night to find some cold hard cash. If Gus needed an operation, or he was Grace’s pet and she had to earn the money for his friend herself, any of those reasons would justify what is to come. As it stands, it feels like a weak premise to build your book upon.
Amongst the three starred professional reviews Grace for Gus has received as of the time of this review you’ll find reviewers praising so many of the things I personally found objectionable. Kirkus found Rump Tower to be a “clever sign”. Publishers Weekly and Horn Book both hailed the book as a, “love letter to New York City”. And School Library Journal said it was, “a superb example of visual storytelling” which, if I’m going to be honest here, I don’t challenge. With only the briefest smattering of words and sentences, Bliss is capable of leading the reader through Grace’s adventures with clearness and clarity. Would that it were enough. No one can doubt that Bliss knows how to utilize the comic book format to his best advantage. Sequential art is undoubtedly his métier. So I tip my hat to the reviewers of the world, all the while acknowledging that for me this book just doesn’t work. Not on an emotional level (seeing the two little realistically rendered guinea pigs peeking out at the reader on the final publication page is cute but strikes no chord in my heartstrings) or even anything beyond the thrill that comes with seeing comic classics faithfully rendered in unexpected places. Bliss is capable of great things. I have no doubt he’ll accomplish them someday. Until then, take a pass on Grace.
On shelves now.
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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