Review of the Day: We Don’t Eat Our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins
Each year, as the new school year draws ever closer, a bounty of first day of school books are published. The bulk of them are overly familiar. A couple of them are a bit witty. But one of them, only one of them, will ascend to the level of “classic”. This year, I am very pleased to announce that the honor simply must go to We Don’t Eat Our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins. It pretty much has everything I’ve ever wanted in a book on Kindergarten. Dinosaurs. Sociopathic goldfish. Saliva. You name it. Ryan T. Higgins is no stranger to the picture book game but with this book I think he’s topped himself. Like that long piece of drool on the cover, this is one title that refuses to let the reader go.
Penelope is nervous about the first day of school. Penelope is also a T. rex. Reassurances from mom and dad aside, she can’t help but wonder if she’ll make any friends. And when the day in question arrives, Penelope is completely shocked to discover that all her classmates are human children. So she eats them. She spits them right out when her teacher admonishes her, but the damage is done. Her classmates now fear her, and rightly so. Stricken and lonely, Penelope turns to the class goldfish for comfort and friendship. Little does she suspect that Walter the goldfish is about to teach her a good lesson in empathy. And mastication.
I mean, where to begin? Let’s talk about the construction of the book right off the bat, shall we? Much of what I love about We Don’t Eat Our Classmates has to do with how well it reads aloud. Those readaloud qualities are partially based in the fact that the author is magnificent at setting up and then surprising expectations. For example, there are the little throwaway lines, like the one about Penelope’s new pony covered backpack. “Ponies were Penelope’s favorite. Because ponies are delicious.” Now much of the benefit of this book will come to kids that have read a lot of other first day of school picture books prior to this one. They’ll know the drill. So it’s a treat to have Penelope enter her classroom for the first time, see the kids, and let the reader think that this is the big surprise. A flip of the page and all the children have disappeared. This is where the text is, once again, so very good. “So she ate them. Because children are delicious.” Every single time I turn the page and read this part, the audience gives a little gasp. It’s like when I’m reading Maurice Sendak’s Pierre to a group and then I get to the line, “So the lion ate Pierre.” They honestly didn’t see it coming. The rest of the book follows along very similar lines, setting up expectations and then knocking them down. It makes for a delicious (pardon the phrase) read.
And I’ve always liked the art of Ryan T. Higgins. The book says that the art of this story was “created using scans of treated clayboard for textures, graphite, ink, and Photoshop”. This is probably the same style he used for his Bruce books and Be Quiet I liked Be Quiet very much, actually, while Bruce I could take or leave. In this book, not only has he upped the ante on his writing (which is swift, slick, and perfectly phrased) but he’s doing such fun things with the illustrations. Look how he foregrounds Penelope to make it appear that she’s standing apart from her classmates outside the school. Look at how her dad tucks his tail comfortingly around her while she clutches her sippy cup. Notice the single stray shoe of William Omoto, how it hangs from her mouth one moment, and how he resignedly puts it back on in the next. I could read this book a thousand times and never get sick of this art.
Which brings us to a goldfish that is quite possibly the most frightening specimen an ichthyologist could ever hope to encounter. To make you understand the degree to which this goldfish’s dead-eyed stare bores deep into my soul, I have to compare it to something completely non-children’s book related. If at any point in the 90s and early 00s you encountered a free newspaper, no doubt you also read the comic strip “Red Meat” by Max Cannon. It featured a regular case of characters, including a guy simply referred to as “Bug-Eyed Earl”.
Now let us compare and contrast:
Why, they could be cousins.
But the interesting thing about Walter the goldfish is the degree to which Higgins can make him creepy. Walter has to stand in complete opposition to Penelope. She is an adorable tiny dino in pink overalls. T. rex dinos are normally easy to make scary. And if Walter were a hamster or a gerbil or a pet snake, it wouldn’t be funny at all if HE were scary. But a goldfish? It’s the perfect foil. There may be something broken inside of him that none of us will ever be able to fix, but that’s the beauty. Plus, look at how Higgins shifts the goldfish’s gaze ever so slightly. When we first get a good look at him, he’s staring into the middle distance. But at the very end of the book, on that last page, he’s now looking straight at us. It’s what I suspected all along. If Mr. Higgins ever wants to go full-out creepy on us, he’s got the goods.
A colleague of mine decided to try this book out on kids (a novel notion!). Sure, I love Penelope to bits but I’m coming at this from an adult perspective (see: previous mention of “Red Meat”). Give this book to small fry and how do they react? As it turns out, they like the book very much but not necessarily in the way you’d expect. When read to a large group, our sample children considered it with a degree of seriousness we hadn’t predicted. Identification with Penelope surpassed anything I might have expected. All children can feel her fears, worries, and sympathize with her slippery grip on impulse control. Though her eye is simply an exaggerated black dot, Higgins imbues her with a pathos that demands understanding. The book is definitely funny, but it’s funnier to older kids. For those on the younger side, it’s practically an instruction manual. Right down to the lesson on how not to put your finger in the class pet’s personal space.
Different first day of school books serve different purposes. There are those Kissing Hand books that offer comfort. There are others that simply recount what school will be like. And then there are some that serve up some humor alongside plain old ridiculousness. If you can laugh at what you fear, you’re gonna be just fine. Now in saying that I’ll admit that if you have a case of extreme nerves, perhaps The Kissing Hand is the way to go. But for those kids looking forward to their first day (and they exist in droves, you know) this should be a delightful capper. Fun, frolicsome, and you’ll never look at goldfish the same way again.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Mostly Monsterly by Tammi Sauer, ill. Scott Magoon
- Sea Monster’s First Day by Kate Messner, ill. Andy Rash
- Oliver and His Alligator by Paul Schmid
Under the Cover: Remove the jacket of this book and you’re in for a treat. Unless Walter gives you hives. Then you might want to skip it.
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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