Review of the Day: The Party and Other Stories by Sergio Ruzzier
Have you ever sat down and looked at books meant to instruct children in the art of reading from the early 18th to 19th centuries? When Americans colonists first came around to the idea of teaching children to read via books, the titles weren’t exactly what we’ve come to associate as kid friendly. “In Adam’s Fall we sinned all,” reads one particularly strident abecedarian title. Since that time we’ve moved away from heavy-handed didacticism couched as literacy aids, but here in the 21st century the tactics have shifted to a new angle. Now many schools have fully embraced the idea of “leveling” the books, which is to say each title is ascribed a distinct letter or number that indicates its text complexity, word count, etc. The idea is that you’d slot kids into a distinct level and then have them carefully read “up” from there. No backsliding. No skipping levels. No reading outside the box or exploring grown-up books on the sly or engaging with reading as anything but strictly leveled homework. Pleasure be darned. This is why I’m so grateful for books like Sergio Ruzzier’s new Fox and Chick series, starting with The Party and Other Stories. I don’t mean to imply that the book hasn’t already been “leveled” by its publisher (Lexile Scale: 370), but it’s one of those funny little titles that eschews the rigorous rote categorization educators try to place on it. It’s picture book sized with an easy book text (or is it an early chapter book?). The images look like comics but the humor is distinctly across ages. It is, in short, just the loveliest little book that ever you did see. To coin an overused but not inaccurate description: sublime.
Friends Fox and Chick may get on one another’s nerves from time to time, but their relationship is true blue. In this collection of three little stories, the first tale (“The Party”) follows Chick as he innocently asks Fox if he can use his bathroom. Fox agrees but when a great deal of time passes he discovers that the term “use the bathroom” can have multiple definitions. In “Good Soup”, Chick peppers Fox with questions about why he is denying his carnivorous tendencies. That is, until Fox reminds him that when you’re a baby chick in a great big world, maybe you shouldn’t go around pushing your luck. Finally, in “Sit Still”, Chick asks if he can be in Fox’s painting, but finds the art of posing more difficult than anticipated.
Almost without meaning to, I found myself trying to define the relationship of the two main characters. When Publishers Weekly reviewed the book, its reviewer was baffled as to why Fox put up with Chick. That aspect actually made a lot of sense to my eyes. For me, the book’s most notable quality, in a way, is its utter and total lack of snark. True, Chick plays the role of jester, sometimes at Fox’s expense, but in this book Fox treats his little friend the way a patient big brother might. With that in mind, I was reminded of those Charlie and Lola books by Lauren Child. This book contains that same sweet patience, with the older, taller member considering the younger one with amusement and, at times, a touch of annoyance. Yet there is real love between these characters, and you get a sense of that. Fox never snaps at Chick, though he does occasionally take him to task on one matter or another. Why does Fox tolerate Chick? Well, why does any sibling tolerate their young, ardent, all-too frustrating relations? Because deep down they really like them, loathe though they might be to admit it out loud.
Now I don’t want to alarm you but Mr. Sergio Ruzzier isn’t like those other illustrators out there. Uh-uh, the man is very different in one very notable respect: He is Italian. Shhh! You didn’t hear it from me! And honestly, you might well forget it were it not for the fact that his books are unapologetically European. Americans are lovely artists, but after a while it can all look a bit samey. The nice thing about Mr. Ruzzier is that he never blends in with the crowd. He might change his medium slightly or tweak the colors, but he can’t really get away from the fact that he just doesn’t look like anyone else. For example, in a particularly non-American move he doesn’t fill his books with big, violent, loud, crazy, slapdash scenes. The biggest accident that happens in this book involves a broken window that is never commented upon and that we never see break. These three stories are droll, but not boring. They amuse without slapstick. In this way they remind me of the best easy books out there, like Frog and Toad and Houndsley and Catina. Friends being friends in a world where the sky is always blue.
One other way that Mr. Ruzzier makes this book so lovely is that he grants realism to the most unlikely of places. Put another way, he likes to include just the smallest of details to his scenes, lending them this ineffable sense of reality. When little animals leave Fox’s bathroom, the mole walks off, trailing a couple squares of toilet paper from his foot. Later, when Fox serves his soup to Chick in the kitchen/dining room, I noticed a single floor tile amongst the blue, yellow, and orange linoleum that was broken in half, revealing the concrete slab beneath (it’s on the endpapers too, if you notice). Look at the tiny remains of chopped vegetables lingering on the cutting board. Or (again with the tiles) the bathroom tile broken into three parts with the third long since missing. There’s some part of your brain that will notice this, even if the conscious part does not. Some part of you that will realize that the tile floor on the front endpapers of the book is clean and on the back endpapers is covered with detritus from the stories. And without even really realizing it, you’ll find that you like this book. You might not know why. But you will.
I haven’t even really gotten into the fact that this is the first time I’ve seen Mr. Ruzzier try out a comic paneled format, complete with speech balloons. It’s perfect for this kind of book. You’d never in a million years imagine that he’d been doing anything other than comics all this time. The panels themselves change from time to time, and follow a couple patterns. For example, each of the three stories begin and end with two-page spreads. That said, he isn’t afraid to do four long vertical columns or line-less panels, should the scene necessitate it. Now imagine that he does all this while also using a highly textured watercolor paper that draws a certain level of attention to itself. The end result is comics that are unafraid to highlight their own medium. In short, the perfect way to meld classic picture book techniques with contemporary sequential art.
For all that I rail against leveling children’s books, there’s one thing the whole process has done well: it has brought attention to easy books. They’re just so hard to find otherwise. Every year I try to find the best ones out there. Books with simple language and engaging plots, and every year I’m able to find only three or four (five if I’m lucky). This year, I was so grateful when I read this book. As you might imagine, it can be hard to locate easy books that aren’t just funny and sweet but also interesting and original. Ruzzier starts his new series off with a bang, melding art forms, employing great (and funny!) storytelling, and (maybe hardest of all) doing it with memorable characters. Can’t wait to see where he goes with it next.
On shelves now
Source: Final copy sent by publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Snail and Worm by Tina Kugler
- Frog and Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel
- Houndsley and Catina by James Howe, ill. Marie-Louise Gay
- Rabbit and Robot by Cece Bell
- Be sure to read this talk with Sergio about the book over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.
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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