Review of the Day: my best friend by Julia Fogliano, ill. Jillian Tamaki
What are we to do with Julie Fogliano? She’s presents to us a puzzle. Consider the life of the accomplished picture book author that does not illustrate their own books. Historically, picture book credit, love, and fame is reserved for author/illustrators. There are exceptions to this, of course, but generally speaking illustrators are the ones most lauded. The Caldecott Award, after all, does not go to a picture book’s writer, but its artist. It’s not the kind of thing you think about too often, yet in the case of Ms. Fogliano it explains so much. Here you have the author that is probably our closest modern successor to Margaret Wise Brown and Ruth Krauss to date. Like them, she has a talent for placing a finger on the pulse of childhood (a.k.a. the ways in which children interpret the world around them), while at the same time playing with language like a violinist with a fiddle. She draws upon her inner poet, paring down her language into simpler, simpler, simpler forms, somehow retaining the emotion of a piece at the same time. There is, quite frankly, no possible way to honor her aside from a Newbery (and we know how often THAT goes to picture book creators). Let us, then, simply acknowledge that when she is at her best, no one tops her talent. my best friend, by Fogliano and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki, epitomizes the author at the top of her game. Hold it up. This is what great picture book literature look like. You may find it helpful to see it at work.
“i have a new friend / and her hair is black / and it shines / and it shines / and she always laughs at everything”. On a playground in a park two little girls meet and our heroine recounts for us everything she likes about this new friend. “she is so smart”, “she really likes laughing”, “and when i step on the flowers she helps me fix them sort of.” Together they spend time together and, when it is time to go, our little girl declares that this new girl is definitely her best friend. Maybe tomorrow when they play together she’ll find out her name.
To review someone like Fogliano, it helps to do her job. If you’ve written picture books then it’s clear from the get-go how good you have to be to be a Julie Fogliano. I’ve already mentioned that her two great skills lie in understanding how a kid thinks and having a poet’s ear for language. To have one or the other of these is a blessing. To have both amazing. And to know how to put these two together into a book . . . that’s where the magic lies. I read so many picture books in a given year that are perfectly good. The extraordinary ones are the rarities. With that in mind, let’s pick apart the author’s two greatest skills and try to figure out why this book in particular is special.
I mentioned Margaret Wise Brown and Ruth Krauss earlier in this review. I called Ms. Fogliano their successor. How so? Well, let’s look at who they were and what they did in their day. Like Julie Fogliano, Brown and Krauss had a particular interest in the child as an independent being with a very specific view of the world. Both Brown and Krauss studied and worked at the Bank Street College of Education in New York City where they were able to observe real children at play, and get a better sense of how to write books that both respected them and amused them. It’s that understanding that informs a great number of their works to, admittedly, varying degrees of success. If you look over their works as a whole you can see them try and try and try to get the books they wrote just exactly right in terms of tone and subject matter. Now Fogliano has not, to the best of my knowledge, studied at Bank Street. I don’t really know anything of her interests or education, but look at how she gets right down at kid-level with the writing in my best friend. First off, there’s the fact that it’s written in the present tense. “i have a new friend” it says right away. It then lists all the things that our heroine likes about her friend. Anyone who has ever watched young kids at a playground will know that this kind of instantaneous friendship comes so easy to them. The things that would take an adult, or even an older child, a long time to learn about someone, little kids can rattle off instantaneously. What our heroine likes about her new friend is everything that is happening between them in the moment. That present tense voice is how a small child sees the world. There is only the now with the faint possibility of the future. This book understands how these kids feel about one another. When they’re ready for friendship, it can be easy.
How do you put that feeling into writing where it sounds like the words are authentically from a child’s brain on the one hand, and yet there’s a casual poetry to the language on the other? I wouldn’t recommend Fogliano’s e.e. cummingesque predilections for the lowercase letters for every picture book. Just the right ones. Consider this statement: “she is my best friend i think / i’ve never had a best friend before so i’m not sure.” Somehow the lower case combines with the simple words and statements to make the text sound younger. Don’t try this at home though, kids. Done incorrectly it could come off as hugely annoying. Instead, Fogliano employs her method to its best advantage. She writes, “i think i know she is my best friend because / she LOVES strawberry ice cream / and i HATE strawberry ice cream / and we are still friends even then / so that is something good.” Just step back for a second to admire the sheer layers of meaning going into that statement. Anybody can write a picture book where a kid lists the good qualities of a new friend. It is worlds harder to say that by liking a person in spite of their possible flaws that person is a true friend.
Fogliano Fogliano Fogliano. Can we start talking about the art now? Here’s something to chew on: Jillian Tamaki did not intend to win a Caldecott Honor. Perhaps she did not even want to. Imagine you have written and drawn a YA comic like This One Summer to the best of your abilities. In the back of your mind you might hope for a National Book Award nomination, but that is as grand a dream as you might allow yourself. Then, out of the clear blue sky, you win a Caldecott Honor. Suddenly, you are not only thrust into the spotlight, but people are blaming YOU for winning an award that normally only goes only to picture books. You are deemed “inappropriate” for an honor you never sought to receive. It might turn a person off the whole writing-for-children thing altogether. What’s interesting to me about Tamaki is that after her Caldecott Honor, it feels as though she vowed to double down on that win. They Say Blue, her first picture book, contained striking images that felt very much like something you might find in a Caldecott winner. Indeed, the idea of pairing her art with Fogliano’s words is a half a breath away from inspired. With my best friend, Tamaki truly embraces, for the first time, what it is about a picture book that a child might love. They Say Blue was an artistic marvel. my best friend an emotional one.
If Brown and Krauss observed children to get their cadences and desires right, artists historically have observed children to get their movements, rhythms, and actions down. A child is, from an artistic viewpoint, a rather strange creature. Their heads are too large for their bodies. Their eyes can sometimes appear to take up 50% of their faces. There’s an old set of instructions for Disney animators you’ll sometimes see floating by on the internet that details how to make a creature look cute (it’s all in the proportions). So how do you marry the innate adorableness of a child’s body to the reality of how they move through space? my best friend begins before its title page. It’s a full-page image of a little face, full of hope, peering behind hands and playground equipment at someone. You instantly like this character. Not a word has been spoken, not even the title of the book, and you like this character. If a picture book is sometimes a cooperative effort between an artist and author, Tamaki is holding up her end of the load.
As strange as it sounds, Tamaki’s art in this book reminded me of no one quite so much as graphic novelist Jen Wang. Something in the curve of her lines, the expressions on the faces, the eyes, the actions. Tamaki and Wang are both masters of sequential art, so what she brings here is a new way of moving from one page to another. It’s far more linear than her work in They Say Blue, though it is, essentially, a series of individual moments, linked. The medium is equally interesting. On first glance the book looks like it was drawn entirely in green and pink colored pencils, but the publication page declares this to be digitally rendered. Pink and green, though. It’s unusual. Not many books select those specific hues. A closer look and you see that our heroine, with her red hair, is the pink, while her new friend, with green highlights in her hair, is green. When they draw one another, they use pink and green. Their outfits are pink and green. Their ice creams. The flowers that surround them. That is not, in and of itself, remarkable. What’s remarkable is that it took me several reads to really notice it.
In this book the young heroine and her friend make skeleton hands out of leaves, laugh into knees, pretend to be pickles, cry, laugh, are quiet, run like banshees, everything. The book ends in a joke for kids and a joke for adults. The joke for kids is when the main character admits that she doesn’t know her best friend’s name but she’ll ask tomorrow. The joke for adults is that this whole book with all its activity has probably taken up 20-25 minutes tops. Now I don’t want to alarm you or anything but I am an adult. And this whole review is full of thoughts and points that only a fellow grown-up would notice. So easy to forget whom this book is actually for. Kids, right? Well here’s a secret. Kids will love this book. Yeah, it’s a visual/literary masterpiece of picture book art and writing but that means bupkiss if you hand it to a kid, or read it aloud to a group, and they’re bored to tears. Precisely because Fogliano knows how to talk on a kid’s level, precisely because Tamaki has made her art so visually appealing, this is the true reason this book succeeds. A kid will want to read it. An adult will want to read it. And they’ll both want to read it over and over and over again. So, for that matter, will you.
On shelves March 3rd
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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