Review of the Day: Firefighters’ Handbook by Meghan McCarthy
I don’t want to intimidate you fine, upstanding citizens, but I fancy myself a bit of a firefighting picture book expert. I say this because, like millions of other adults, I have a child that liked fire trucks. Now my kid’s love was what I’d call on the moderate side of the equation. He didn’t obsess over them, but rather found them a rather delightful diversion, and why not? Fire trucks and engines are big, red, loud, and save lives. They’re like superheroes in truck form. But as I am a children’s librarian, I am aware of an entirely different part of the spectrum. There are kids out there for whom the term “obsession” runs mild. These are children for whom there are not enough firefighting books in all the world enough to satisfy the void inside them that demands more more MORE MORE MORE!!! I know these children. I know their parents. I know that these parents will literally pull any work of dreck off of the shelves if it has even a tangential relationship to firefighting. To these parents and guardians I bestow a gift. A reward, if you will, for meeting your children’s needs with books rather than just finding the first firetruck-related YouTube video out there and planting them before it. In short, I give you Meghan McCarthy’s Firefighters’ Handbook. It is everything you have ever wanted in a book of this nature and more. This is the book that your children and, to be frank, you, deserve. Go on. Crack it over. You’re worth it.
So you want to be a firefighter? You’ve come to the right place. But becoming this kind of hero isn’t exactly easy. If you’re truly dedicated then you’re going to need to learn everything there is on how to train, live, and work as a real firefighter. Fortunately this handy dandy guide is here to help you through the process. With this book you’ll learn the tests necessary to pass your firefighting training, the names and definitions of your equipment, what you’ll do on your downtime, how you’ll practice, and you’ll even hear from a real firefighter about the highs and lows that come with the job. When we’re through, kid, you will know absolutely everything there is to know about firefighting in the real world. Think you can handle it? We know you can.
Now when I mentioned the firefighting obsessed children of the world, you probably surmised that I was talking specifically about toddlers and preschoolers. And McCarthy’s book is, quite frankly, for an older set. Not to say a preschooler couldn’t get a lot out of this title, but I wouldn’t call them the original intended audience, necessarily. Obviously any book that mentions auxiliary discharge connections and the requirements of the CPAT (Candidate Physical Ability Test) is aimed at a wider scope of readers than a book that says, “The fire truck goes wee-oooo, wee-ooo!” That said, I want you to give your kids the benefit of the doubt. Yes, this book will be of most use to slightly older children for whom a love of all things firefighting-related never waned. Yet anyone who has ever encountered an obsession in a person, regardless of age, will know that satisfying that need is above all else. So a preschooler with a yen for firefighters is not going to necessarily care that some elements of this book are above him or her. And therein lies the genius of McCarthy’s narrative. Because as in all her books, she can be read by a wide swath of age ranges. The very first sentences in this book read, “Welcome! Soon you will learn everything you need to know to become a firefighter.” There it is. Clear as crystal. No age designation to be found. You want the gig, kid? This book has the goods.
The most obvious predecessor to this book would, of course, be McCarthy’s 2008 title, Astronaut Handbook. As in that book, the author has thrown herself bodily into her research. Unlike Astronaut Handbook, she’s dived much deeper into the subject matter. In an interesting twist, Sources for kids to check out are listed in the Endpapers (they’re all websites) but the Bibliography is housed at the author’s website: Meghan-mccarthy.com. Is it strange that I’ve never seen this before? I can see why it was done, of course. Space is at a premium when you write a work of picture book nonfiction. The limitations of the form deemed that McCarthy would only be allowed to fill 48 pages of this title in total. For the backmatter, she had to make specific choices. Allotted only two pages, she spends one entirely on an interview conducted with real firefighter Bob “Bubba” Parmenter, a retired Fire Department Battalion Chief in Warwick, Rhode Island. This means that the second page had to encompass questions from real children to Chief Parmenter, questions to accompany the memory quiz at the beginning of the book, an answer to the interview questions at the beginning of the book, Acknowledgments, a memorium, Photo Credits, and the aforementioned Sources. Little wonder McCarthy put her Bibliography on her website. Even so, what does it say about the state of the publishing world today that a publisher as great and grand as Simon & Schuster makes its authors house such important information and refuses to duplicate it for the book’s page on the publisher’s website? In the event that the book goes out of print, McCarthy’s website would be the more reliable of the two, but there’s no reason this information couldn’t be duplicated. Just saying.
And speaking of information, one of the things I found I admired most about this book was the fact that it seemed to honestly be a thorough examination of firefighting in the 21st century. Sure, in 50 years or so this title might date, but until then it feels so real. I’d never encountered a book that made such a clear delineation between fire trucks and fire engines (a truck is like a toolbox, an engine carries water of its own). I loved how it showed the tests you would have to pass for the CPAT, making the process of becoming a firefighter seem like a realistic and practical job opportunity rather than some fantasy that only exists in picture books. And then there’s the pole. You know the one I mean. I think there may be a law in America that states that you can’t have a picture book about a firehouse without an image of someone sliding down a pole in there somewhere. Now some folks would condemn the pole on sight, but as McCarthy acknowledges in her backmatter, while newer stations don’t have poles, older ones still do. Glad we covered that one.
When I think of a Meghan McCarthy book, I think of thick paints in glorious colors. I think of large, round, white eyeballs. And for outlines, I think of black, broad ones that direct the eye instantaneously. I’ve been following McCarthy’s work since her first book Aliens Are Coming back in 2006, so I was amazed to find a change in style with this particular title. Here, the artist has honed her work considerably. Though recognizably her, with paints you can almost feel as they pop off the page (the endpapers of hanging firefighter jackets are a prime example of this), this book feels more delicate and detailed than any she’s done before. Consider her view of the interior of a fire engine or ladder truck. The cutaway reveals a level of detail and attention that no doubt young readers will insist their parents read to them, piece by piece, point by point, every time they get to that page. The publication page says the art was just created with acrylics on Stonehenge paper, but look at the precision of her lines on buildings or even the trucks themselves. One two-page spread of the buildings where firefighters go to train made me positively giddy with the perfection of those delicate lines and perspective. And look at those teeny tiny firefighters down below! Whatever acrylics McCarthy is using to render such minutiae, I doff my cap to it and to her.
This all sounds pretty technical, so let me assure you that the book, on top of being an accurate examination of firefighting modernity, is also incredibly fun. Some of this is due in large part to the format. McCarthy’s been in this game long enough to know that you need to break up the continuous spreads with white pages that detail images and actions piece by piece. As in Astronaut Handbook McCarthy will also put in some child stand-ins, to give young readers the sense of they themselves working alongside real firefighters on the scene. Of course, in the interests of safety, she’s had to include such warnings as the asterixed sentence, “WARNING: This child is too little and too young to be on a fire scene! Do not imitate please.” To be honest, that felt like an inclusion from a litigiously wary publisher. If any kid gets an idea from this book that they should run out and grab a hose in the event of a fire, clearly that’s not the book’s fault.
“Most of the time we are called during the worst day of a person’s life.” That’s Chief Parmenter talking there. It’s so strange that a job that fits that description could also be arguably the most popular occupation amongst the toddler and preschooler set. But I think that’s the price you pay with actual honest-to-god heroism. And with nonfiction picture books increasingly aware of the complicated nature of “heroism” in so many other aspects of our lives (most notably our shared history) it comes as a bit of a relief to encounter something as purely noble as the yen to save other people from local, all too common disasters. Now there have been nonfiction books similar to this that illustrate their pages with photographs, but none have been this engaging, this well-written, and this finely honed as what McCarthy’s created here. If there is an art to rendering expository facts with a narrative feel, then Meghan McCarthy is this type of book’s Vincent Van Gogh. Never sacrificing beauty, never skimping on reality, she provides the perfect balance while also managing to come up with books that kids will really really enjoy reading. A treat to eye and ear and a blessing to parents of the firefighting obsessed nationwide. The best at what it aims to be.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
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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