I was recently talking to my sister about ideas. You see, when we were children, we both loved playing “make believe” or trying experiments or having adventures. But all of these things need to be sparked by an idea– they need to be planned. You can’t make believe without some spark of a plan. My sister was the one with the ideas; I was along for the ride. We still joke to this day that if my sister says, “I have an idea!” Well. You should hide under the table if you don’t have the stomach to go along for a wild ride.
This is a book about ideas, about plans, but it’s turned upside-down, right on its head: Shh! We Have a Plan, by author-illustrator Chris Haughton. (Can we digress for a little moment to discuss how cool I find it that Candlewick Press, which produced this book and so many other beauties, is located right in my neck of the woods? Proud I am to breathe the same sweet air as Candlewick Press.)
Dear readers, this book exemplifies what Candlewick Press does so well: it’s fresh, it’s original, and it leaves you asking just a few questions at the end. Meanwhile, the art (created digitally) is equally fresh and original, and yet it fits beautifully on a shelf beside such illustrators as Christian Robinson and Dan Yaccarino, for example, with its bold colours and blocky yet graceful shapes.
The story goes like this: There’s a group of four people (a family or friends, perhaps?) who are out on an adventure. The three biggest are carrying nets; the smallest of the four is not. As they walk along, they see a beautiful bird. The smallest waves and says, “Hello, birdie!” But the others say, “Shh! We have a plan!” They sneak up on the bird: Ready one, ready two, ready three… Go! They pounce on the bird– but the bird gets away! Over and over they try, until the fourth friend finally approaches the bird in his own way, according to his own plan: “Hello, birdie. Would you like some bread?” And what happens? He ends up surrounded by a whole flock of beautiful, colourful birds! When the other three creep up with their nets again, the birds chase them away, and then what do the three of them do? “Look! A squirrel!” and “Shh! We have a plan!”
There is so much to enjoy in this simple story that I hardly know where to begin, but we have to start somewhere, so. One of the most striking elements here is, as I mentioned above, that Chris Haughton leaves us with a lot of questions at the end: Who are these four people? What’s their relationship? Why are the bigger three hunting birds and squirrels? And, by the end, do those three ever learn?
The answers to these questions aren’t evident from the story. I’d call them “four friends,” but they might be a family, or they might be four Members of the Parliament of Blueville, for all that we really know for sure. They have no specific background or gender or name or anything: they are, in effect, four little Everymen ready to receive whatever the reader of the story chooses to impose on them. (I notice with interest that in my little summary I used the masculine pronoun to refer to the smallest of the four people; that was completely unconsciously done.)
Whatever we impose on them, however, there are still certain actions they take which might influence our perspective on these people. I find myself automatically distrustful of anyone walking around carrying a net, for example, so my sympathies are immediately directed towards the smallest of the group, who cheerfully calls out, “Hello, birdie!” instead of chasing with a net. And the story rewards this cheerful little fellow, bringing a whole flock of birds to surround him, whereas the original bird fled from the three fellows with nets. And so we forge forward, looking forward to finding out how the three figures with nets will react: will they understand, will they join in on the party?
Nope! First they spring at the birds with nets, and then, when they’re chased away, they pursue a squirrel in exactly the same way. The smallest of the friends remains apart, scratching his head as the other three pursue the squirrel, and, once more, we’re completely sympathetic: “Why,” we wonder, “are they doing this again?” And we’re back to questions.
What, in effect, do we know for sure about the story? We know that there are four of these people and that they seem to be looking for some adventure together out in nature. The bigger three want to possess it, and the smallest enjoys it on a face-to-face basis, leaving the birds free to do as they please. Without ever being didactic, purely showing and never telling, then, Chris Haughton demonstrates to the reader the truth of an old adage: “If you love it, set it free.” (Does anyone know the background of that saying? I wonder where it came from.) Those who try to trap the bird are left with nothing, but the one who came to the birds on their own terms was caught up in a moment of true beauty, and true happiness. Maybe, we think, you don’t need a plan. Maybe you just need to leave it to the birds.
What stands out to me from this book is how completely non-didactic it is. It’s humorous, sweet, and very beautiful. The message, too, is gentle and beautiful, but it in no fashion lectures children; it simply shows us the sympathetic small person, and asks us to love him. And we do.