Review of the Day: My Parents Won’t Stop Talking! by Emma Hunsinger and Tillie Walden
I was at a library conference the other week (the first since the pandemic started!) and got into a conversation with a publisher about a rare but beautiful aspect found in some of the best new picture books being published today. You know when you encounter an idea in a book and the first thing you think is, “How has this never been turned into a picture book before?” There isn’t a word in the English that perfectly encapsulates this feeling. The best we can do is simply acknowledge when it happens. For example, I was overwhelmed by this sensation when I first laid eyes on the title of the Emma Hunsinger/Tillie Walden mash-up, My Parents Won’t Stop Talking. If ever there was a book just begging to be made, it is this one. Incredibly funny with a loose Jules Feiffer-esque art style that just screams to be read aloud to large groups of children, this is a magnificent example of taking a great idea and then pushing it as far as it can go. The universal becomes the personal, at least when it comes to getting your parents out the door.
By all rights, this should be easy. Molly wants to go to the park with her moms and her little brother Seth. Oh, she just has so many plans on what she’ll do when they’re there. Everybody’s ready, so off they go when the unimaginable happens. Her parents are called over by their neighbors . . . The Credenzas. At first Molly tries to convince herself that she’s good at waiting, but that little lie doesn’t last long. Next, she tries distracting herself to pass the time. Pulling on her parents clothes and moaning just loud enough to be heard but not so loud that she’ll get in trouble? Nada. Panicking, she starts to come to the unavoidable conclusion that this is her life now. She will never get to the park. Her parents are destined to talk to the Credenzes forever. And just when she begins to get even more grandiose in her apocalyptic fantasies… it’s time for the park!
A good writing guide I was recently reading (The Secrets of Character by a guy I happen to be married to, so that’s cool) discusses how one way writers can make their readers love their heroes is to take a very specific element or memory from childhood, one that hasn’t been done to death already, and put it in a book. And what better example is there, then, than dealing with adults caught in conversations with other adults? I myself remember with crystal clarity trying to leave church after the service, only for my mom to remain in the pews chewing the fat with other adults, even as my little brother attempted to steer her towards the door with his head. So when I saw this book I did that typical thing that children’s librarians do when they encounter a new title: I tried to think of readalikes. Okay. What are the other picture books about dealing with slow moving parent figures? Surely they exist, but my brain pulls a total blank. Could it be that this is the first picture book to talk about this idea? Probably not, but it does now have the distinction of being the best in the biz. That ain’t small potatoes.
I like any book that takes an idea to its logical extremes and then moves on beyond that into illogical extremes. It’s not just that the parents are sucked into talking to the Credenzas. Hunsinger and Walden have managed to create the MOST awful grown-up conversations of all time. To my mind, it all culminates with that line, “Oh, I have a new book recommendation for you. It’s about gluten-free crystals” (though, truth be told, that line really makes the pity I have for Molly’s parents know no bounds). Other extremes come when Molly lapses into superlatives. “My parents will be talking to the Credenzas forever.” Turn the page and Molly has sort of passed from his mortal plane into a level of spiritual acceptance, beyond wants and needs. She’s found peace in giving up entirely. She begins to lose it a little, deciding to embody the park entirely on her own. And just as Molly’s madcap fantasy blossoms into some truly beautiful strangeness THAT is, of course, the moment when her moms ask if she’s ready to leave. Man, the timing in this thing. So impressive.
For the record, the book is also incredibly funny on, not one, but two different levels. First off, the jokes in this book, both visually and in the writing itself, land. There are some choices made with the cartoon-influenced art that do incredible work. Molly is magnificently expressive. The shot of her shell-shocked face from that time she had to wait a whole hour for her parents to pick her up from her piano lesson is worth the price of the book itself (note the teacher saying, “Have I told you about my son, Pierre? He’s very good at selling houses”). And then the whole premise is funny for any kid who has ever been in Molly’s situation and knows the soul-sucking pain of watching your parents discuss dull-as-dishwater subject matter with other grown-ups. But then there’s a lot of humor in here for parent readers too. Because the Credenzas are just awful. Look, any neighbor that makes you have to give an apologetic, “I don’t know if the kids are old enough for a ’spiritual bath’ just yet, but it sounds nice” are people you’d want to avoid talking to for long periods of time. You can actually look at the mass of speech balloons over the adults’ heads and figure out perfectly which phrases are from the Credenzas and which are from the moms. Here’s an example, “You mean my favorite neighbors aren’t going to a free concert at the library?” RUN, moms, RUN!
Oh! Here’s something that never gets mentioned all that often in book reviews of picture books (but really should be). What happens when you remove the book jacket of this title? In an American library, a book’s dust jacket is often Mylared and permanently attached to the book, meaning that no matter how many times it circulates it’ll protect its contents at all costs. This is where folks who actually own the books get a leg up in the matter. Remove the jacket of My Parents Won’t Stop Talking and you get this fabulous image of the words “Blah Blah Blah” repeated ad nauseum in a wide variety of colors and fonts. Even as I began to lift the cover I knew that something good was hiding under there. I just couldn’t figure out what could possibly match the tone just right. Mystery. Solved.
Maybe I just relate to this book a little too closely. Not simply because I feel Molly’s pain, but because she and her brother really and truly remind me of my own kids. My daughter is occasionally prone to drama and exaggeration. Her younger brother is a go along to get along kind of guy. Maybe it’s the ingenuity of the premise. Or the fact that this book is so squarely in the child’s court. This isn’t one of those picture books waiting to weigh you down with some kind of lesson about patience. That would ruin everything! I suppose you could make the argument that the book is about how nothing, not even the Credenzas, lasts forever. Still, at its heart this is a book that lets kids know that they are not alone. It’s like Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, but funnier and with neighbors that yarn bomb their own trees (seriously, who does that?). There is a place in this world for good, meaningful picture books, and there is a place in this world for funny stuff. And this stuff? Some of the funniest I’ve seen in a long time. Get it for your kids or, if you want, the kid you remember being once long ago.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Interviews: Read my interview with Emma Hunsinger and Tillie Walden on the creation of this book here.
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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