Review of the Day: The Happy Book by Andy Rash
So much of picture book writing consists of rehashing old concepts. When your audience consists almost entirely of small, new people, necessity dictates that you will have to present familiar ideas to them in a host of different ways. Consider your average preschool teachers. Not only do they have to keep their charges fed, napped, and relatively clean, but they also have to instruct them on the basics. Shapes and colors. Numbers and letters. And then there are those more intangible concepts like emotions. Think about it this way – you have to ascribe words to deeply personal feelings. A child crying feels like they’re the only person in the world who has ever felt that way. How weird is it that you can put a name to that emotion? And yet every year, time after time, new books about emotions come out. Now I know that there’s a whole swath of teachers out there that automatically reach for Aliki’s Feelings, but here’s the advantage of looking beyond the classics. Turns out, 21st century picture books have an awful lot to offer. And sometimes, if you’re very lucky and the stars align and the heavens sing a high C at precisely the right moment, you’ll get a book about emotions that’s so good it moves beyond the usual “concept book” fare. Good old, Andy Rash. I always knew he had a book like The Happy Book in him. All it took was a swath of inspiration (and maybe a bit of collaboration with his son Joe) to give us the feelings books we never knew we needed and now cannot live without.
Two best buddies are having a high old time. Happy Camper and his pal (happy as a) Clam are friends to the end. But when Camper devours Clam’s friendship cake without sharing so much as a bite, the book begins to swerve in a different direction. Camper notices a mysterious door which, when opened, turns out to be an entrance to The Sad Book. There he finds Clam with a teary-eyed trombone (“Bwah-bwah”) upset about the cake situation. Peeved, Camper makes his own way to The Angry Book accompanied by (what else?) a wet hen. Ultimately the two fear for their friendship and end up in The Scared Book (resident: one cat), where they talk it out. So do they return to The Happy Book at the end? It’s a bit more complicated than that. Better to end at The Feelings Book. Sayonara, unrealistic expectations of perpetual joy!
The key to any good funny picture book isn’t that dissimilar to the key to good writing in general. Basically, you have to upset expectations. So you tell kids you’re going to read them The Happy Book (conveniently forgetting to mention the subtitle “and other feelings” in the process). The cover is rife with good cheery vibes. The story itself is such a golly-gosh-gee-willikers bundle of joy that you’ll have little trouble believing that them’s all he wrote. It was an honest surprise to me when the clam disappeared behind that mysterious door and the storyline went in an entirely different direction. Then there are the jokes. Parents, I have found, have low expectations for picture books so if you work in at least one really good knee-slapper early on, they’re yours for life. For me, it happened early on when the Happy Camper does a little dance while saying “Nothing beats being happy with my best friend.” Look at how Rash has positioned him. He’s twisting his upper half to the left while simultaneously kicking what appears to be his left leg far to the right. And this little dance makes me giggle every single time I see it. I should expect it, but somehow I never do. For other adults it might be the Sad Trombone or the moment the Wet Hen finally lays her egg, but odds are there will be at least one joke for everyone in the family to enjoy at some point during the read. Because, when all is said and done, there is nothing funnier than a cat covered in spiders.
Funny is one thing, but how do you write a book about emotions that actually has something to say to kids? Sure, it’s fun to see two characters wander through various landscapes of color, but on another level Rash is making some pretty cognizant observations about friendship. When kids read this book they’ll be in the early stages of navigating their own social interactions. And boy, let me tell you, nothing brings emotions to the surface quite as quickly as small children dealing with other small children. The Happy Camper is happy but truly self-absorbed in the same way that many kids are self-absorbed. He can’t understand why eating the clam’s cake was a problem. He can’t understand why anyone would want to spend any time at all being sad. But perpetually, throughout the book, you notice that Camper and Clam talk to one another about how they’re feeling. It’s not enough to just feel these feelings singly, or even to observe them in others. Rash is making a case for why sharing your feelings, open and honestly, leads to better conversations, and a better friendship.
Back when Andy Rash wrote, Archie the Daredevil Penguin there was something about the guy’s style I dug. It’s hard to put my finger down on precisely what that was, though. It was a little cartoony, sure, but it also had this flair to it. I see that flair yet again with this book. First off, check out the man’s color scheme. Yellow, blue, red, and green, bright as all get out. When the Happy Camper turns the page and discovers The Sad Book on the other side, Rash just floods you with as much blue as he did initially with yellow. The effect is immediate and almost emotional. I’m fairly certain that page turn wouldn’t have worked half as well as it did had he opted to follow up yellow with green or red. Then the characters themselves just pop. If you’re going to do a book about feelings, you have to be unafraid to have characters that can show ‘em off to their best advantage. Show me anger! Show me misery! If you can do that, you’re in the clear.
For librarians and teachers, however, there is one overriding question: How well does this book read out loud to large groups? I mean, I read it to my seven and four-year-old and they got a kick out of it, but it’s a whole other ballgame when you find yourself facing down a room full of squirmy preschoolers. Fortunately, that’s why I have the supreme advantage of tapping my talented co-workers for info. The results? I am happy to report, that when one of my fellow librarians performed this book for a storytime it worked like gangbusters. How could it not? Note, the fine use of primary colors (the better to see the book across a room) placed inside of thick black lines. Note too the inclusion of jokes that grown-ups will get. At one point during his read, my co-worker got to the Sad Trombone and gave a morose “Bwah-bwah”. Instantly the parents burst out laughing and the kids, who initially regarded them with quizzical looks, soon joined in. Finally, note how you never really know where the book is going to go from one page turn to the next. Kids will sit, rapt, unable to tear themselves away. Rash never makes the reader do too many different voices (put another way, he never Harry Potters you, if you know what I mean) and the ending is stand up and cheer happy. Just don’t be surprised if you get some cries to read it again, again, again!
Other picture books that discuss emotions go through the process like they’re ticking boxes off. Happy? Check. Sad? Check. Angry? Check and check. What makes The Happy Book different is that it shows that these emotions don’t exist in a vacuum and talking about them can be a way of dealing with issues that might otherwise be repressed. When an adult picks up a book of emotions, they expect the rote listing. They may not expect a smart encapsulation of how feelings and friendship are so intertwined that separating them can be difficult. On top of that, you have hilarious writing and art that has the dual advantage of appealing to kids near and far. You have other books about emotions that you love, I have no doubt, but seriously consider supplementing them with Rash’s latest. A loving little book unafraid to be happy, sad, angry, scared, and supremely good.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
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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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