Illustrated by Dan Santat
Abrams Books, 2012.
We have nearly all of The Sisters Grimm series (trade paper). Natalya owns all of the N.E.R.D.S. books published in the series (hardcover). Needless to say, Michael Buckley is a name we are familiar with and when I saw this picture book I was going to check it out. Of course, Dan Santat is also familiar having read his comic book Sidekicks earlier this year. With Santat’s style and sense of humor paired with Buckley’s I was sure Kel Gilligan was going to be a treat. What I didn’t prepare for was my very audible laughter throughout. No, I wasn’t in a Library or funeral parlor, but I was in a very quiet Children’s Section of a bookstore whose stares were just as bad. I was only setting a good example, because Kel Gilligan should make you laugh out loud. So I left it out on the table near the couch. I didn’t re-shelve it. I wanted someone to pick it up and wonder and find it as wondermous as I did.
Kel Gilligan (a.k.a. “The Boy Without Fear”) encourages kids to laugh at their fears and celebrates the bravery it takes to try new things no matter how ordinary. Narrated by Kel himself as he attempts his “stunts” with Evel Knievel–like flair, the story unfolds as a performance in which readers themselves become part of the audience, encouraging Kel to get dressed all by himself (without a net!), eat new foods like broccoli (eww!), and take a bath (gasp!). Bold, interactive, and downright silly, this is a book to make kids cheer and attempt some “stunts” of their own.—publisher’s synopsis.
There are some picture books created to commiserate with the parents, a post-baby shower gift for those toddler years, like Go the F*ck to Sleep by Adam Mansbach. I haven’t read it as it was after my time and frankly I wasn’t interested. In Mansbach’s case he is looking only to commiserate with parents on the subject of bedtime frustrations. Laughter being cathartic and all. But some books can empathize and provide catharsis while still encouraging you to read it to your kids. Kel Gilligan is one such book and Buckley covers more than just bedtime. How about convincing your kid to eat broccoli, dress themselves, take a bath, use the potty, and an equally important: entertain themselves while mom (or dad) is on the phone!
Kel Gilligan is a self-proclaimed daredevil and he provides video evidence of his most daring feats, like facing the Potty of Doom (which he wishes he’d had a book on hand as it was taking longer than he thought). He is not going to be defeated by broccoli, and with a deep breath he will survive bath time. He sure is brave. And while the declarations and the exclamations of a typical stunt watching crowd in the video frames may give this the dramatic flair of a Stunt Show! Kel Gilligan doesn’t come off as too silly. We want to identify with, laugh with (if anything), not laugh at. He is quite serious, and parents will hope his daring is infectious.
Kel is also a child with a personality I can’t help but adore, and apparently neither can the parents, whom, if late illustrations demonstrate, have had an influence on the daredevil’s style. Kel tries to be brave but he doesn’t always succeed in overcoming the odds. Like putting himself to bed in the dark…where monster may be under the bed. He will “leave it up to the professionals” and he doesn’t lose face, or stride. He will just move onto the next brave thing, protect his parents from where he sleeps between them in their bed.
Santat is excellent with high energy, color, movement, proportion. The video pages are awesome not only because of the framing, but the capture of a moment or the collapse of a sequence. He partners perfectly with Buckley’s flawless sense of comedic timing, especially with the self-deprecation, though in the is case I think self-effacing is the better tone. At no point is Kel Gilligan critical of the child, his parents, or of childhood itself. For all the frustrations (what is with the phone thing, Natalya (aged 12) does it still?!) there are all the awesome things that come with a childhood (as it is experienced by both child and parent). And what happens when that imagination and fearlessness of childhood are celebrated in a brilliant little picture book?—an adventure that is memorable, full of laughter, and endearing as all.
Kel Gilligan is childhood. It is dynamic, imaginative, daring, full of occasions for laughter, and punctuated by that whispered exchange of awe at the end of a long day.