When I made my recent trip to The Children’s Book Shop to get that kick to my inspiration, I found myself stimulated and refreshed by a wonderful chat about various aspects of the book industry, which is my way of adultifying what really happened which was a sort of love-fest for Chronicle Books: “Oh my God, yes! It’s amazing how original they are!–” “Original, exactly! Both in the content and in the physical–” “Oh, absolutely, I don’t think anyone has a better understanding of the physical book than Chronicle Books!” And so on.
Please understand that declaring my undying love for Chronicle Books is in no way an insult to the many, many other wonderful children’s book publishers out there. Remember how I called myself la Coquette des Livres? Precisely. (I’m looking at you, Candlewick and Charlesbridge, right around the corner from me, and always wonderful!) But that’s the nice thing about children’s books: they do so very, very much that there’s always room for more, somehow. Whether it’s a clever nonfiction introduction to the doughnut (damn, tell me that book’s out there somewhere, I want it!) or a whimsical poem about a cat’s trip around the world, there’s room for a new book. Chronicle’s particular skill, I think, is in finding and bringing to life the slightly off-beat, the quirky, the mischievous. That being said, they’re also responsible for the dreamily lovely Swan and A Child’s Garden of Verses, as well as Vincent’s Colors, but let’s just say that shows the breadth of what they’re capable of accomplishing.
In this case, the genius of Chronicle Books was to look outside of the United States. Originally published as Quiquoiqui? by Actes Sud in France , Chronicle Books translated this to English. (And, look, it seems that there are more of them in the series! And, yes, of course I want them, and want the original French editions, too.) Let me tell you this: I wish I knew who done it the translation, because it’s wonderful. I know from experience how hard it is to do a really smooth, flowing translation, and this one is simple, idiomatic, and suits the illustrations well. My congratulations to whoever was responsible!
After all that gushing and background, I hear you grumbling, “But tell us about the book!” Patience, grasshopper, patience. I needed a moment to relieve my overburdened heart, and also wanted to prepare you for just how cute this book is. First of all, there’s the format: long and thin, the spine is at the top of the book (I think you can see from the picture above). This immediately captured the Changeling’s attention and she was absolutely enthralled by figuring out a new way to open a book. I love this for a few reasons: a) it prepares the kid for something new from the first physical touch; b) it’s an excellent format for surprises. The way it opens, each time you turn a page the whole previous page is covered, making the new page appear like a magic trick: “Hey, presto! Here’s the new page!”
But what are the surprises? Olivier Tallec has a lovely little cast of characters (les Quiquoi, in the French versions), and they’re getting up to mischief of all kinds. Who Done It? is the question. Who didn’t get enough sleep? Who forgot a swimsuit? Who ate all the jam? To find out, you examine the illustrations. Well, that little guy is playing the trumpet, this one is wearing a costume and gesturing wildly, and the little girl is holding a red balloon… but that bear is leaning on the sofa sleepily and the red fellow with the ears is falling asleep on his friend, so I guess they’re the ones who didn’t get enough sleep! And, ahem, I think I see the one who forgot his swimsuit… Oooh, that little dude up there is smeared with red! I guess he ate the jam!
So, you see? It’s a search-and-find game, a sort of puzzle, but with a difference. Instead of finding “who stands out,” you read the text and watch for subtler clues to find who matches the description. Instead of seeing who’s the only one wearing green shoes, you’re looking for hints about body language or behaviour. My absolute favourite page, because I guess I’m about five years old? (Apologies for the hasty phone photo– the book is hard to get flat on my own, but you should be able to see everything necessary.)
The little blush, the grin, the puddle? This is picture-book storytelling at its best. Even the Changeling, at two-and-a-half years old, could figure that out, just by examining the little figures: “Oh, he made a pee-pee on the floor! It’s a yellow pee. I made a yellow pee!” (Leading to a moment of blessedly unwarranted panic because she didn’t have a diaper on at the time…)
But let’s turn to those illustrations for a moment. Note the clever lines and details, certainly, but also the pencil work. It reminds me of nothing so much as Le petit Nicolas, written by René Goscinny and illustrated by Jean-Jacques Sempé. Do you know their work? Here’s an illustration for you, just in case:
Dear God, how I loved those illustrations when I was growing up! And let me tell you how thrilled I am to have a somewhat similar style to introduce to my daughter right here and now. Let’s take a look. Note the free, sketchy lines. I’d say that Olivier Tallec’s work aims for a somewhat more polished look, definitely with greater use of colour, but look at the noses and ears, those little pert curves. Look at the slightly shaggy hair. There’s a type of vigour and humour even in the outlines which I adore. They announce: “We’ve got a joke, just follow along!” If you’re familiar with the Astérix comics, they have a similar energy, although of course the style of drawing is very different. Like a comic, however, we have here a perfect blend of visual humour in the style and content of the drawings.
Let’s finish by running through the reading experience. First, you’re holding the book open with your child, and you read the first question. You have to read it with a straight face, because the question is asked very straightforwardly: it’s a serious question! The giggles start as you turn from picture to picture and identify who’s sleepy. Then a moment of suspense: what’s next? Ah! A new serious question! And so it goes. Each page is a surprise with a simple question which has to be taken seriously, and illustrations which refuse to be taken seriously.
This is sheer fun to read with a little child, probably of any age, but definitely with a toddler. It’s quirky, it’s intelligent, it requires thought from both parent and child, and it’s always, always fun. The hard part with this book was getting it out of my daughter’s hands long enough for me to write about it. The fun part is having it to myself to giggle about for a bit. The really hard part is that now I want to go to her daycare to read it with the kids.
Warning: book may cause uncontrollable giggles and an urge to locate children to read it with you.