hey, two Luyken books in one week. you’re welcome.
Illustrated by *Corinna Luyken
Dial, 2018. Hardcover, 40 pages
Our “Ms. Smarty-Pants” narrator is indignant that people believe Adrian Simcox has a horse. She is out to debunk that myth. For one, he is way too poor to own a horse, let alone care for one.
Despite her teacher’s instruction that they should “try to be understanding. [And] be patient,” our narrator is not and she calls him out on his lies. And the question quickly becomes, just who is causing actual harm here?
Her mother provides another opportunity to choose a kinder approach. It’s a tense moment, and it’s a moment for the reader to pause and think about what the right next move is alongside the young girl.
She takes the opportunity to consider the situation differently, to see Andrian Simcox in a more generous light. And as she acknowledges Adrian Simcox’s imagination, he’s surrounded by color and life, and the silhouette of something it may take the next page to reveal…a beautiful horse. (do you see it? it’s there on the cover as well.) Notice how she is participating in its realization by what and how she is holding it (however unconsciously).
Luyken’s illustrations provide the body language to go with the text in scenes that are straight out of many of our own childhoods. And after reading a plea on twitter for authors/illustrators to reconsider always casting/portraying a fat person as the villain, I’m appreciating how our unnamed protagonist (could be antagonist) is an “average” looking girl. She isn’t fat and neither does she have the sharp edges of the near-emaciated villains of popular culture. Because she isn’t a villain. She is an average child. But was I reticent to see her as malevolent because of her lack of edges or weight? Or because I am a know-it-all and was a careless child myself? Hmm, how do creators work with the cultural visual shorthand we’ve developed (however harmfully)? Because we need that tension in this picture book. She can’t be the villain, not even the “mean girl” in her unfussy clothing, accessory or hair. Hmmm, stereotypes; external visual telegraphing…ugh.
Luyken does offer a variety of ways to engage our visual literacy via backdrops, activity, positioning (blocking), posture, expression, color palette… That the book should find out-of-doors/outside settings, with nature a part of the scenery, because the picture book is exploring a place outside of institutions, and within the very natural part of our growing up. I appreciate the lack of any dramatic difference in height/build between the narrator and Adrian. I was considering that vivid hair of Adrian’s, reading vivid imagination, lively, not easily dismissed. And in Luyken’s work we can be drawn into sympathy with a number of characters. We can be the unruffled mother who models listening and gentle instruction. Notice how she offer a self-sufficiency and lack of hovering and zero sense she’s threatened/threatening her child as she crouches, back toward, working on her bicycle as they converse.
But a first read requires that we must be the protagonist. And it isn’t all bad. Note the narrator’s posture in that same conversation with her mother. Leaned back, messing with the toolbox with her foot, how casual and lacking in aggression the exchange is; not as emphatic as her declaratives in the text. It is as if she is testing out an idea with her mother—and with someone who knows her (teasing her with “Ms. Smarty-Pants”). Even so, we may desire to be the kinder more generous reader who identifies with Adrian, but Campbell is clever in having us read/adopt the voice of this narrator for the reading. We speak her aloud at the beginning, through that change, and we speak her realization at the end. We find that we can be right and wrong at the same time. Adrian does and does not have a horse. It’s perspective, intent, and maybe none of our damn business. What does our righteousness risk us, and what does righteousness actually look like. What matters?
Adrian Simcox Does NOT Have a Horse is a story that involves kindness, imagination, being different, and stealing people’s joy. It’s particularly significant for the black-and-white rule-following crowd; especially as they age and must begin to acknowledge context, and not just our relationship to the rules/knowledge, but our relationship to one another and how that reinterprets those rules…and what you know.
Campbell and Luyken allows our narrator to relent, to change without placing the burden on Adrian or anyone else (not even the mother)—and it is powerful.
Recommended as wonderful addition to grade-school-aged libraries on kindness, imagination, being different, and stealing people’s joy; particularly good for the b/w rule-following crowd.
Of note: The book does host kids of different ages, races.
*If you haven’t yet read Corinna Luyken’s picture book: The Book of Mistakes (Dial, 2017) or My Heart (Dial 2019)—it is absolutely delightful; I highly recommend it.
“7 Impossible Things” visits with Marcy Campbell & Corinna Luyken
Marcy Campbell lives in Ohio with her family and menagerie of rescued pets. Her writing for adults has been published widely in journals and magazines, including Salon. She grew up on a farm filled with cows, chickens, cats, and dogs, but she never had a horse. Adrian Simcox Does NOT Have a Horse is her debut picture book.
Corinna Luyken grew up in different cities along the West Coast, and after studying at Middlebury College, she settled in Washington State, where she draws inspiration from nature, her family, and the human form.