It’s All Relative: An Unexpected Trend in What We Value
I have a very mischievous mind. It likes to play tricks on me. Say a person walks up to me in a social setting and then asks something casual like, “So what are you reading right now that’s really good?” Instant brain freeze. My jaw constricts. My eyes glaze. I babble for a while until the first book I can think of pops into my head and, inevitably, it’s something I read back in 2012 that has nothing to do with what’s popular today.
The same response comes when people ask me what trends are popular with the kids or with the publishers (not the same thing, obviously). If you ask it of me I will fidget, say “What’s that over there?”, and then run in the opposite direction. Really, the only way I even notice a lot of trends is when they’re so peculiar that they refuse to be ignored. 2019 has seen a couple of these, so far. They tend to include two books on a specific subject, like the cowgirl potty trend (This Cowgirl Ain’t Kidding About Potty by Sarah Glenn Fortson and Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty? by Dawn Babb Prochovnic). Two books isn’t a trend, though. It’s a quirky coincidence. But five books? Five books means something is happening.
In 2017 Susan Hood and Jay Fleck produced a surreptitious little picture book called Double Take! A New Look at Opposites. Probably one of the more inventive opposite books out there, the book tackled the notion that when it comes to looking at the world, you have to acknowledge what your personal perspective is. For example, an elephant looks strong but look again and you’ll see that it’s dwarfed, standing as it is on top of a whale. The whole notion really got me to thinking. We live in a world where the internet provides a perfect echo chamber for our beliefs. In that chasm, gaining a little perspective should be considered a life skill. Without it, you spiral.
This year five picture books attempt to wrestle with the idea of how numbers or concepts can be relative. If the number stays the same, how do we value its worth in various iterations? And if a situation looks dire in one sense, can it ever be considered all to the good in another?
The first of these books is Is 2 a Lot? An Adventure with Numbers by Annie Watson, ill. Rebecca Evans. What is “a lot” to you, personally? The idea of turning that kind of discussion with a child into a book with a plot can be intimidating. Watson and Evans’ solution seems to be to inject a little time travel into the proceedings. A boy and his mother are driving and he’s peppering her with questions about numbers’ worths. Eventually she comes up with concrete examples about why a number cannot be said to always be big or small. Stuff like, “TWO is not a lot of pennies, but TWO is a lot of smelly skunks.” There’s a practicality to the book that’s refreshing.
Funnier is Five Minutes (That’s a lot of time) (No, it’s not) (Yes, it is) by Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Olivier Tallec. Tallec was clearly the right man for this illustration job because his art is pitch perfect for the material. Anyone who has ever taken care of a child for a significant amount of time will know that while numbers may be relative, time is what is truly subjective. The five minutes you spend waiting for a roller coaster to arrive is clearly much longer than the five minutes you spent actually riding the ride. There aren’t a plethora of words in this book because, quite frankly, there don’t have to be. Many kids will recognize the situations at play, and may even get a sense of why asking “how much longer?” may not be the most useful question in the world (not that it’ll ever stop them asking just the same).
Returning to numbers once more is One Is a Lot (Except When It’s Not) by Mượn Thị Văn, illustrated by Pierre Pratt. Notice how, like the other two aforementioned titles, this one uses the word “Lot” in its title. A Pierre Pratt book is always a treat and Văn has all sorts of books out this year that are worth examining. Of all the books on this list, this one is by far the dreamiest and most philosophical. How much can ever be enough? 1 sun is a lot. 1 dog is a lot. 2 can even be too much. When it comes to rain clouds, 0 is perfect. Like the other books, it works a storyline into its rather esoteric text.
Let us now shift away from metrics for a while. Certainly Goodbye, Friend! Hello, Friend! by Cori Doerrfeld isn’t about numbers. It’s about life events and how we couch loss when it leaves room for new gains. You might remember Doerrfeld as the creator behind the truly extraordinary The Rabbit Listened, last year. In this book, perspective is wrapped up with ideas of transition and change. What is lost and what is gained and why it’s not the end of the world is the name of the game here. It’s hard to ever see the good in your best friend moving away, but life is long and often we don’t yet see the big picture.
And yet, Doerrfeld’s book isn’t alone in trying to get kids with tunnel vision to think outside their own initial perceptions. I always identify best with grumpy kids and the girl in the brown coat in A Day So Gray by Marie Lamba, illustrated by Alea Marley, fits that description to a tee. She sees grays. She sees browns. Her entire existence is literally colored by her pessimistic point of view. And to her credit, when a friend gently suggests alternative methods of seeing the world, the brown coated nihilist doesn’t pooh-pooh those suggestions. She’s open minded enough to consider their wisdom.
In many ways, I think that’s what all these books are attempting to do. Children find great comfort in absolutes. That which is right and that which is wrong. But the world we live in is filled with gray. It’s chock full of different perspectives and points of view. So kids would do well to learn how to consider something, whether it’s a number, a time of day, or a snowy sky, from a multitude of angles. These, my friends, are books for our times.
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