Well, he doesn’t toss in a comical character. But Louie’s sad tone is broken by the thoughtfulness of the two kids who are putting on the show, Susie and Roberto. When Louie stands up at the beginning of the show and starts talking to Gussie, they don’t yell at him or laugh at him:
We’d better have Gussie answer him,” Susie says. And she says, in Gussie’s voice, “Hi Louie. Nice to see you. But me and the mouse gotta get on with the show. Won’t you please sit down? There’s lots more to come.”
After the show, when they offer Louie a chance to say good-bye to Gussie and he grabs her and won’t put her down, they do not grab back:
“What’ll I do now?” Susie whispered to Roberto.
“Gussie is very tired,” explained Roberto.
“She has to go home now.”
At the end of the story, Louie receives a note that says, “Go outside and follow the long green string.” At the end of the string is a gift from Susie and Roberto—Gussie.
Without the kindnesses of these two kids, Louie’s story would be too bleak for young readers. It would read more like a case study. The kindnesses balance Louie’s loneliness and make a satisfying whole.
One more: one of my all-time favorite books is The Gardener by Sarah Stewart, illustrated by David Small.
And it has a pretty bleak premise: Lydia Grace Finch has to leave her family, go and live in the city with Uncle Jim because it’s the Depression and her parents do not have money enough to feed her. Sarah Stewart spices the story with bits of humor—Papa says the way to recognize Uncle Jim is to “Just look at Mama’s face with a big nose and a mustache!” Then there’s Lydia’s own perky personality that gives buoyancy to the story. And Lydia has a goal—to get a smile out of Uncle Jim. That goal is the thread that pulls us through the story. Lydia plans a surprise. Will it be enough to make Uncle Jim smile?
So back to work, with a few new tools—maybe I’ll add a new character to this story; or add something to the main character or braid in threads of kindness toward my main character; or add humor along the way through image or metaphor, or dialogue; or—probably hardest of all— find a way to express that one question that won’t be answered until the end of the book.
For the long haul, I’m going to take up reading cartoonist Bob Mankoff’s blog to develop my humor muscles and keep watching for other picture books that blend humor with the hard stuff. I’d love to hear about your favorites.
Jackie Briggs Martin is the author of eighteen picture books for children. She is best known for Snowflake Bentley, which received a Caldecott medal.The Chiru of High Tibet was named to Smithsonian Magazine's and Kirkus Review's "Best Book of 2010" lists and selected for the 2011 list of "Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12" by the National Science Teachers Assoc and the Children's Book Council. Her most recent are picture book biographies: Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix, Creekfinding: A True Story.