"review" · Children's · fiction · Illustrator · Picture book

a Blackall connection (2)

Sophie Blackall is one of my favorite Illustrators, children’s books or no. When I try to think of just one word to describe her work: Vivacious comes to mind. Odd, I know, but it works. Her Illustrations are “attractively lively and animated.” She is one of those Illustrators whom I will read the book because their artwork is featured. ~from the last post “a Blackall connection (1).”

I love the cover of Big Red Lollipop, the color, the expression on the girl’s face, the composition in relation to the story and its title… I would have picked this one up without knowing about Illustrator Sophie Blackall, but I hunted it down because it is Blackall’s work.  Course, I didn’t have to hunt long, between the popularity of this book and Library Request/Hold.

The experience of reading Big Red Lollipop was unusual for me. And I debated how I would write about it, as I had a negative response to the story, but absolute adoration for the illustrations. I considered writing solely about the illustrations and maybe no one would notice the absence of comment on the accompanying story (or care)?

I decided to go ahead and talk about the story, recalling that when I right about my reads it is in the spirit of contemplation/conversation. And I know I missed something. I am going to start with the negative response which is My response (I even use the redundant language of “I felt”). Then I will talk about the Illustrations, which is what excited me most positively about Big Red Lollipop. I will provide asterisks for when I leap off into the Illustrations portion, so you can skip to there if you are so inclined…my working through some stories can be tedious and I shared more of my convolution here than usual…

Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan

Illustrated by Sophie Blackall

Viking Children’s Books, 2010.

(hardcover) 40 pages.

Rubina is invited to her first birthday party! She can’t wait for the games, cake, fun…and party favors. But her mom doesn’t know what a birthday party is–it’s new to her–and she insists that Rubina bring her little sister along. That isn’t the way it’s supposed to work, but Rubina has no choice. And it turns out that having pesky Sana at the party isn’t nearly as bad as what she does afterward!

Sophie Blackall’s irresistible illustrations combine with Rukhsana Khan’s winning story to offer this fresh and funny take on sibling rivalry. ~dust jacket.

Ah, sibling issues! such a relevant topic around which to base a beautifully illustrated picture book for young children. Yet, I wouldn’t have picked it up but for Blackall, Natalya is presently an only child, and even if that have not been the case or were to change?…

This wouldn’t be the first book everyone loved that I didn’t care for. Publisher’s Weekly has this wonderful write-up:

“Khan (Silly Chicken) delivers another astute and moving story, ostensibly dealing with sibling rivalry, but actually about hard-won lessons emerging from clashes of identity and assimilation. When Rubina receives her first invitation to a birthday party, her mother, who readers are left to infer is an immigrant, is first perplexed (‘What’s a birthday party?… Why do they do that?’), then insistent that Rubina take her annoying younger sister along, even though Rubina pleads, ‘They don’t do that here!’ The result, in Khan’s characteristically direct prose, is devastating: ‘I don’t get any invitations for a really long time,’ says Rubina, and Blackall’s (Wombat Walkabout) subtly textured ink portrait shows every nuance of the girl’s sense of social failure. But Khan’s remarkable gift for balancing emotional honesty and empathy, and her keen understanding of family dynamics, keeps defeatism from swamping the book. Rubina turns her experience into wisdom and gains her mother’s respect as a mediator between cultures. It’s an ending worthy of a novella, and once again signals that Khan is one of the most original voices working in picture books today. Ages 4 — up.” Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

As an elder sibling (to a sister), I would have disliked this story in elementary school, I thought.

Rubina cannot go to the birthday party unless she takes her younger sister Sana who begs to go too, and then her sister eats the lollipop form the goody bag that Rubina had been waiting to savor. On both occasions, the mother decides in Sana’s favor. Sometime later, Sana gets an invitation and the youngest sister wants to go and now Sana has to take her. And while Rubina does consider the just desserts, in the end she comes out on side of Sana and tells their mother that Sana should go by herself. Sana brings Rubina a lollipop by way of thanks and “After that we’re friends.”

Even now in my early 30s I felt terrible by the end of the story. I didn’t find anything funny about the sibling rivalry; it was painful.

The story failed me in that the sister’s empathetic action at the end, the lollipop, didn’t feel redemptive. It felt like: thanks for letting me go and have a fantastic time without having to drag a pesky younger sister along, thanks for sparing me the ostracization for being the weird/different girl, have a lollipop and let’s be friends. The mother’s decision to finally take Rubina at her word fell just as flat because the benefit was Sana’s again (however unconsciously). Hmmm, Sana gets her way again, and if she is happy then we can all be a happy peaceful family. Maintaining family equilibrium at the cost of one child’s needs over the others’ desires is not a lesson with which I am comfortable.

Though it is evident through the illustrations and dialogue that the family is recent immigrant, the family dynamic is not foreign. Perhaps my ability to respond with any sense of catharsis is where a cultural barrier reveals itself? Or am I just an unresolved issue?

My reading experience is imbued with issue… Childhood resentments anyone? I guess the act of forgiveness by Rubina is an example I should be following… And that it took more than a few readings to catch the forgiveness angle? I should have perhaps read this with a parent. All those childhood lessons of being the “bigger” person and knowing I have to answer for my own conscience apparently disintegrated and a cozy post storytime chat would have been beneficial.

As Publisher’s Weekly remarks, Big Red Lollipop is “actually about hard-won lessons emerging from clashes of identity and assimilation.” I don’t know if I would’ve gotten that in elementary school, or even cared if I did. I can read Sana as a metaphor, a representation of taking the peskier differences of your culture into the new and dominant culture with you. I can read Rubina as the first generation trying to negotiate two worlds. I can see that to which Publisher’s Weekly was referring. I just didn’t.

Big Red Lollipop caught me approaching the story wide open, thinking I would find something “fresh and funny.” And it was fresh, an unanticipated reply to an anticipated angst. Who I am as the Reader surfaced: I am an older sister of a younger sister (1 year 4 month 4 days difference); I’m a mother of an only daughter; I see parents who read picture books to their children in order to relay lessons (whether the author intended for them to be used that way or no); I consider that I missed something, willing to be persuaded; I (re)read; and I handed it to my daughter whose response was somewhat validating, but not articulate enough. Her look? “Its a picture book.”

I was troubled by the story, was angst-ridden over the implications I found therein: that as an older sibling you bend, and it will be worth it in the end because everyone will love you for it, and that will be enough.  I think that the cultural perspective is lovely, even as I wonder if it wouldn’t be a bit of work for a non-recent-immigrant younger grade schooler—or am I underestimating them. While I would, of course, appreciate validation in my response to Big Red Lollipop’s story, I really desire conversation.

Big Red Lollipop is acclaimed for a reason and I do not disbelieve Publisher’s Weekly’s review or any other positive response to the story.

I (re)read. Yes, its a 40 page picture book. How many reads must you make L?

So, the mother would only be “fair.” And when Sana’s “begging so hard she’s crying, but still Ami won’t listen.” Sana is going to have to take the younger sister until Rubina changes mother’s mind. The mother is going to be consistent; it isn’t about older and younger, L…And people have their own sense of “fairness” when parenting. So I could easily recommend the read to those who would agree with Ami’s sense of fairness. Though….okay, stemming the potential digression.

Now to feel resolution for those last two pages, the token offering and the “And now we’re friends.” I would have much preferred Rubina walking into her room to find the lollipop waiting with a brief “thank you” and leave it there. As it isn’t my story, of course, I will have to save those last two pages for another time, as it is they felt too quick for me.

***********

Right, I’m exhausted. Fortunately the Illustrations are easy…

Rubina running home with her invitation.

Sophie Blackall’s Chinese ink and watercolor illustrations in Big Red Lollipop are marvelous. They express so much of the action and emotion in the story, as I suppose they are supposed to, but Blackall’s work is an effortless study.

The pictures are selective in detail, and in a way they might come across as simplistic, so easy on the eye the reader captures content unconsciously. Blackall compliments the story with animate postures, facial expressions, color, clothing that are engaging, emotive. They really are a lovely experience.

One of my favorite pages is  actually a two-page spread, when Rubina is chasing Sana around the house. It is an overhead shot of a furnished floor plan that places Rubina and Sana at the top left corner of the left page. Rubina has swung open the closet where Sana is hiding from her after having eaten Rubina’s lollipop, and Sana is crawling out, escaping between Rubina’s feet. Then the chase is on as several iterations of Rubina and Sana rocketing around furniture, hair flying back, sweeping lines marking path and speed. with the welcome mat at the door, and everything so neat and in its place, warm muted colors, and these two girls dashing madly about.

Love the above picture of the musical chair illustration. The text says, “Sana has to win all the games, and when she falls down during musical chairs, she cries like a baby.”  In the picture, Sana doesn’t miss the seat to just anyone. Is that panicked look on Rubina’s a face a “Whoops!” or what? Should she have let Sana get the chair? The grimace of having her sister wailing like a baby amongst all the smiling happy older children? Rubina is holding the edge of the seat with one hand and extending the other, a reaching action or a pushing, or both. I love the colors and patterns. I love the diversity of both the children and the chairs.

Sophie Blackall is a gifted storyteller, a great compliment to anyone’s text. I was excited to see her work on Big Red Lollipop make the NY Times  Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 2010.

I saw Blackall had illustrated another new Picture Book. This one by the fantastic Jacqueline Woodson call Pecan Pie Baby. It came out in October of this year, but the Library has yet to get it. I saw images of it at “7 Impossible Things before Breakfast.” So while I have yet to get my hands on a copy, Blackall is an easy recommendation. And having read Woodson, I feel good there, too.

Blackall is an incredible asset to any author desiring to publish an Illustrated Children’s Book. At least, that’s how I feel on the matter…

Sophie Blackall's Site, Blog, Etsy Shop, "Missed Connections"
reviews/posts on Big Red Lollipop's illustrations: Lawrence Downes' (NY Times) "The Corner of Bitter and Sweet"; "7 Impossible Things before Breakfast" post (which includes Pecan Pie Baby).

thoughts? would love to hear them...

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