Review of the Day: Off-Limits by Helen Yoon
Misbehavior is the backbone of children’s literature. Think of the great works of picture book literature. The apex of it all, Where the Wild Things Are is entirely ABOUT misbehaving. The Very Hungry Caterpillar climaxes with the caterpillar eating foods that are not good for him. Goodnight Moon is completely lacking in misbehavior (not even the kittens go for the seemingly suicidal mouse) so there’s nothing for it but to go to sleep. And don’t even get me started on Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. To set up the rules and norms and then to break them with some kind of magnificent chaotic fiasco, people of all ages appreciate that sort of set-up and payoff. Helen Yoon? She gets it. And she’s made this picture book that somehow manages to set up and upset expectation consistently while also placing the book in this strange COVID/post-COVID world. Writing, timing, art, and humor. What’s not to love? I’m circling this book like a cat with a strange new toy, because I can’t quite figure why it entrances me as much as it does. One thing’s for certain, though. Kids absolutely adore it, and that’s not the kind of thing you can fake.
As a father leaves his home office for the kitchen he tapes a simple sign on the door. “OFF-LIMITS”. Seems pretty straightforward. Little does he know that his daughter is sneaking her way in. It all starts off so innocently too. “…I don’t think anyone would miss one piece of tape. Just one little teeny-tiny piece.” Next thing you know the lamp has a “lovely scarf” of tape, the paper clips and binder clips are doing a dance worthy of Busby Berkley, and the Post-It notes are going boldly where few Post-It notes have gone before. All of a sudden our heroine freezes, realizing what she’s done. Punishment is surely close at hand, as she slinks off to her own room. Only what she finds there isn’t at all what she expected to see.
It is a common misunderstanding that simply because a person draws well, they will automatically have the ability to make a good book too. I’m sure we’ve all seen the picture books by storyboard artists that look more like they took sketches from a wall, slapped a binding on the lot, and tried to call that monstrosity a book. I did a little research into Helen Yoon since the first thing her bio says is that she’s a professional illustrator out in L.A. Turns out, the lady’s got a big range. When you go to her website and take in the levels of intricacy and detailing on some of her art, then turn back to look at Off-Limits you can develop an appreciation for this new simplicity. Yoon scales herself way back with this title. Look at the precision of her line. The angles, once you begin to notice them, are such a sheer delight. Then too, consider her characterizations. I think I could write whole essays on the way in which Ms. Yoon uses her girl character’s pinky fingers or her father’s frozen eyeballs when he gets caught in a compromising situation (and did you notice that both she and he are caught in approximately the same place on the page, several pages apart?). And then, there are the details. I became quite interested in the fate of the daddy’s slippers as well as the fact that the pet dog at the end appears to be juggling. There’s even an image on the back of the book that solves the big question of why the dad went to his daughter’s bedroom in the first place. The rare throwaway detail that actually advances the plot.
It was my daughter that pointed out to me that this is a pandemic-era picture book. Or, as my husband calls it, an excellent example of “stealth COVID” lit. I missed all of that entirely on the first read. It never occurred to me that the whole reason the daughter is home and that the man has this home office set-up could be because they’re suddenly being placed in close proximity with one another like never before. This is a book about what happens when parents try to set limits for their children but in the end there’s no bottling up your kid’s creativity. When we find ourselves in the same spaces with the same people for a long period of time, something’s gotta give. For a kid, a wild unbridled Post-It Note frenzy. For an adult, a Bowie-esque performance complete with octopus cape and fabulous tutu.
But I’m sort of burying the lede here. While I appreciate the book’s humor, it’s subtle angularity, and its appreciation for a good binder clip, I discovered something about Off-Limits that far and away made it much more interesting to me. This book is a bit of a phoenix for one very simple reason: It’s a magnificent readaloud. When I did regular storytimes, I often found that my performances (because what is a storytime except a performance where the audience is liable to do anything at any time?) were best when I used picture books with a very specific perfect text and tone. If I like a picture book and find it works with a group, it is my best friend for life. Other teachers and librarians, who feel this way about their readalouds, heed my words. The charms of Off-Limits are vast and many but the readaloud potential is where you really need to concentrate. Somehow or other, Helen Yoon is that rare flower that can not only figure out how to adapt to a picture book format, but also write a book that I want to read out loud to everyone I know. Seriously. I will record myself reading this book right now if you ask me. It has delicious opening lines like, “Hello! I’m just looking. There’s nothing wrong with just looking…” which I read with a kind of Frank Nelson on Jack Benny energy. It has a song that you will have to make a tune for (I haven’t decided which one I like best, though I’m leaning towards the I Dream of Jeanie theme song’s tune. And that ending. Sometimes I love reading a picture book aloud that lets me act like a shocked and stuffy grown-up that is shocked SHOCKED at the actions of the characters in the book.
In the course of my research on Ms. Yoon I decided to take a gander at her Instagram page. And there, lo and behold, I saw nothing but office supply-related cartoons. Yep. Some were one panel. Others more. But all of them illustrated with real pencils, binder clips, pens, you name it. It is clear that Ms. Yoon has a penchant for all things Office Max. It is also clear that she has a preternatural ability to put together a picture book with equal parts flair and fun. This book would make for a marvelous deep dive study into what it is that makes picture books fun for kids. Mischief, sure, but also design, timing, good writing, fun characterizations, and an ending that sticks the landing. It reads aloud better than any other picture book I’ve encountered this year and you can read it over and over and notice something new each time you do. Professional illustrators don’t always stick with picture books, and it could well be that this is Ms. Yoon’s final title. I hope, though, that we are able to enjoy her magnificent presence for years to come. A future favorite of kids and adults alike. No limits.
On shelves October 12th.
Source: Print 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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