I was faced with one of the horrors of life today: a dentist appointment. Do you hate going to the dentist? I do. It’s the poking and the scolding and the predictability of having done something horribly wrong. Point is: after having endured the tender ministrations of the steel hooks and picks in the hands of the dentist, then the best antidote is frivolous fun. Which is why today we’re going to be talking about one of my favourite books from last summer, which it’s really time to revisit for this summer: Ice Cream Summer, written and illustrated by Peter Sís. (I’m linking you to his wonderful website so you can poke around there. I bought my copy at The Children’s Book Shop in Brookline because they tricked me into it by showing it to me and then I couldn’t let go. They’re like that there.)
If I had to think about one word to associate with Ice Cream Summer, it would be “chuckle.” It’s not a hilarious book, or a silly book, although it has great puns and jokes and a hefty dose of silliness in the pictures. It’s not a serious book, although it has really interesting history and a little math and cartography. This is Sís at his best: not walking the line between fact and fun, but merging the two. He doesn’t need to sweeten his nonfiction with humour. He just writes the book he needs to write, and thereby shows that fun and fact walk hand in hand. This isn’t a fiction book, but it’s not a serious nonfiction book, either: it’s just a book. It’s not a laugh, it’s not a thoughtfully furrowed brow: it’s a chuckle.
How does Peter Sís get this chuckle out of us? It doesn’t hurt that his topic is ice cream. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s really, really ready not just to write about ice cream, but to write about the platonic ideal of ice cream which we all know to be out there somewhere: ICE CREAM SUMMER. Ice cream which I imagine to be cold and refreshing without being so cold as to numb your throat when you slurp it down. Ice cream with sprinkles and a cherry on top. Ice cream in all colours, but which somehow emanates a frivolously pink nimbus of frothy delight. Ice cream in sundaes with velvety sauce and real whipped cream. This isn’t just ice cream scooped from a tub in your freezer, maybe with crystals: this is the ice cream of your dreams.
How can I tell you that? Because I looked at the front cover, sighed in delight (with a little smile starting), and then flipped through, chuckled at the pictures, and turned helplessly to the counter to buy the book. In other words, the illustrations are glorious. There are teetering towers of ice cream scoops in waffle cones, an ice cream-shaped lamp over an ice cream-shaped bed, a hammock swung between ice cream-shaped trees, and the boy protagonist tucked into a sundae bed for his Sunday rest. The illustrations are whimsical and play into the jokes in the book (“I always take a break on sundaes”), but are also precise and detailed. Sís does not jump manically into the swimming pool with ice cream in his hand– he leaves that to his main character. Sís has careful outlines, refreshingly brushed with watercolours. They look a little crazy, but much of that is in the content (the ice cream bed and trees, for example) rather than the execution, which is quite classic.
Classic with zany details really cuts to the heart of how this book works. Take the concept: a boy named Joe is writing to his grandfather to tell him how his summer has gone and how he’s been so good that he really deserves the special trip his grandfather promised him. He tells his grandfather about the reading he’s doing: “I am conquering big words like tornado and explosion!” The illustration shows that he’s reading “mango explosion” and “cherry tornado” at an ice cream store. “I practice my math facts,” Joe continues. And the illustration shows him carrying ten scoops of ice cream as his dog carries three: “10 Scoops + 3 Scoops = ?” reads the page. Yet what could be more traditional than a summer letter to a grandparent? And what letter would be complete without details of camp life? “Today we learned cartography,” Joe explains. And shows off the ice cream map he built: Ice Land is in the southwest, while Mango Rocks and Pistachio Cliff are due north.
The longest passage is the exploration of ice cream history, beginning in ancient China. Did you know that ice cream was invented there 2,000 years ago? I didn’t. Thank you, Peter Sís, for educating parents along with children! Then on we go through Marco Polo and the Silk Road, over to Italy and Catherine de Medici, who brings ice cream to France. Joe’s letter states that he’s “researching the whole European continent,” and it’s not wrong. It becomes clear that to study ice cream history encompasses a whole mass of topics and places, and Peter Sís shows it all concisely and engagingly. You’d think this passage would be for older children (or adults like me) only, but, oddly, this is the Changeling’s favourite part of the book. She enjoys pointing out the details in the illustration, and, bit by bit, I tell her what it’s all about. She loves that.
In the end, as the letter draws to a close, Joe wonders where his grandfather will take him and you turn the page… to see a grandfather decked in ice cream gear and the words: “To the top of Ice Cream Peak? Wow! This is the best summer ever!” And it is evident that the ice creamy adventures will continue.
You’ll have seen that in each aspect I’ve described you see the same perfect synthesis of exuberant fun and interesting tidbits, interesting facts. Is this an educational book? Well, you can learn a lot from it, and it even has a list of further reading discreetly tucked in. But I wouldn’t say it’s sneakily trying to educate you. I think it’s showing you that learning is fun, picking up facts can be entertaining in its own right, and why not do more of it? I’ve never liked kids’ books which sneakily try to teach you, and if this were a sugar coating over an attempt at getting some information into your brain I wouldn’t like this book, either. Manipulation isn’t a good look for books or people. But this book is just having fun, and has no definite educational agenda it’s trying to push. If you read it, you will enjoy it, and will happen to learn something, too. Now, that’s what a good book should do, for children and adults both.
So, after you’ve had a rough day and a rough visit to the dentist, I strongly advise the following program: go to the bookstore and get this book; go to the ice cream parlour or grocery store and procure ice cream; sit down, read book, and consume ice cream. Forget the dentist for the next six months. Be happy.