Let’s take a moment, please, to acknowledge the iconoclasts,
the nose-thumbers, the crackpots and revolutionaries of children’s literature before they disappear – either they or our powers to discern them. Ours is increasingly a culture that rewards original thinking - from middle school avant-garde performances to esoteric doctoral theses - right up until the minute you are collecting unemployment. So it’s probably a little wistful, but certainly good policy, to keep sprinkling these little reminders – in our books and curriculums and advertising campaigns – with the hope they may one day amount to somebody’s else’s revolution.
I’m optimistic - I probably have to be, with kids – still I worry over books in particular about dreaming your own dreams, and marching to your own drummer, and seeing things differently, that they – the books – look exactly like all of the rest. If you are moved to write, to edit, to illustrate, to glitter-glue a book about rebels or otherwise visionaries, then I think the burden is on you to prove that you know what the heck you are talking about.
It could be argued that every book about dreamers owes something to The Carrot Seed, originally published in 1945, in which the establishment is represented by an entire family of naysayers, leaning diagonally onto the page with their respective discouragements. Still:
“Every day the little boy pulled up the weeds around the seed and sprinkled the ground with water.”
Of course the boy is rewarded for his faith, his care, and - I’ve always believed - his good old-fashioned equanimity with a wheelbarrow-size in-your-face carrot, and, as if that’s not enough, in my edition at least, the carrot is as blushing and vivid as the looks of embarrassment we never get to witness among the members of his repudiated family.
This is consistent with the period’s modesty perhaps, and anyway the stage is perfectly set for fifty-five years of rousing elaboration. Gardening has remained a dependable circumstance in the history of this theme, but really, after a fifty-pound radish-hued carrot, if you want to be a visionary farmer, then you, and whatever you’re growing, better be pretty damn weird.
Wesley, the dweeby teenage boy in Paul Fleischman’s Weslandia, grows mysterious crops from seeds blown in from the west, then harvests the fruit, tubers and bark to construct an entire parallel civilization. He weaves cultish looking robes, invents an alternative counting system based on the number eight, renames the constellations, and grows generally, uncomfortably weirder by the day. Still, in this era of nipple-piercing and eyeball tattoos, Wesley’s reaction to all of the other not-very-imaginative shenanigans of his schoolmates qualifies as a truly eccentric, courageous and ultimately seductive example for anyone convinced that a revolution is not limited to how you dress.
Unless you’re a naked mole-rat. “Eeeeewwwww,” say the other mole rats when they see Wilbur, who does in fact wear clothes in Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed, another Mo Willems production. I must admit that was kind of my reaction too when I heard about it, but here is a book that, even if it does not represent an innovation in its genre, brings something like the seminal spirit of a folk tale to the enterprise, that plus nakedness, and it is very, subversively funny.
Rebellions can happen quietly of course, their audacity unrecognized for years. In Rocks in His Head, an amateur geologist follows his passion for minerals through lots of dead end jobs and plenty of eye-rolling before finally landing a job at a famous museum, his influence finally extending to thousands of visitors a year. In The Dot, a girl pursues the multiple variations of an accidental circle to artistic fulfillment, and even acclaim.
Still back to gardening: there is a book I found a few years ago on Amazon when I went digging for stuff where G. Brian Karas was in any way involved. I can’t say why – this is personal for everyone – but his faces and landscapes have always felt vital and familiar to me, and true, like Charles Schulz’s probably struck a lot of people in his time. I took a gamble then, but not a very big one. The book - which I bought for something like a dollar - was called Mr. Carey’s Garden, with words by Jane Cutler, and it is about nothing more complicated than the spectacular things you can see if you are prepared to look where no one else is looking. “I see things in a different light,” Mr. Carey repeatedly answers his neighbors’ advise about the extermination of snails, but when the summer moon comes around, big and full…
Well, I won’t spoil it for you. “Think Different” was a popular slogan a while back, and I fell for it, yet just as important is one other suggestion I hope no one has trademarked – “No Thank You” - or I will probably buy everything on their shelves.