A Sick Day for Amos McGee, by Philip C. and Erin E. Stead, ISBN # 9781596434028
So. You guys. Work... well, work is kind of kicking my butt right now. That probably goes without saying, since I haven't had even a moment for ye olde blog in two weeks now, but still. I am having a rough go of it and fighting off a cold that won't quit. There are times in the year when my job is pretty much all sprinkle cookies and toddler smiles (with a fair amount of manual labor and potty accidents), but there are other times when I kind of just want to bury my head in my hands and weep. I like to refer to those times as, "September 1 through December 25." Lately, I've been lingering over story-time arts and crafts just a little too long (because coloring is so darned therapeutic), and spending way too much time discussing plot elements of sci-fi novels with teenagers. I like to pretend these things stave off the rising panic of not being anywhere near prepared for the coming holiday insanity. And it is insanity. If you have not worked retail in the United States during the fall/winter holiday season then believe me, you have no idea the amount of vitriol the general public is capable of, over something as insignificant as, I don't know...waiting in line. It might be all sound and fury, signifying nothing, but it is unfortunately, inevitable.
"Isn't this supposed to be a review?" you ask, and "What on earth does this have to do with a picture book?" To answer your questions, yes, and everything. I'm getting there. I promise. Way back in early summer, I stumbled across, A Sick Day for Amos McGee, by Philip and Erin Stead, and was instantly enamored by the sweet story, and Patricia Polacco-meets-Barbara-Cooney illustrations. Sure it was essentially about some animals and a zookeeper, and I am not a fan of zoos (particularly the modern city zoo variety, which is a discussion best left for another time and a different blog), but I couldn't help myself. If a book can make me overlook the fact that I don't approve of its basic premise, then it truly is something special. As soon as I made a home for it on our staff-picks shelf at the bookstore, I discovered that it was already on backorder. Gone. Poof. Sold out. Now. If you've been following the recent, NYT picture-book kerfuffle and ensuing backlash, you will know, that simply doesn't happen. So I waited. And waited. Until last month, when a stack of newly printed Amos McGee's found their way onto our shelves, and I joined a group of pre-schoolers for a good old fashioned read-aloud.
An elderly zookeeper named Amos McGee has a routine. He wakes early, takes two scoops of sugar in his tea, waits for the number five bus, and heads off to his job at the zoo. No matter how busy he is, he always makes time for his animal friends. He sits quietly with the penguin who is very shy, lets the tortoise win relay races, and reads stories to the bespectacled owl who is afraid of the dark. It isn't until Amos catches a cold and finds himself too sick to work one morning, that the animals decide to pay him a visit. Thankfully, the elephant, rhinoceros, tortoise, penguin, owl, a mouse, and even a red balloon fit snugly on the number five bus. At face value, A Sick Day for Amos McGee is very simple. Its particular brand of darling could charm the pants off the most crumudgeonly of readers. But there is so much more at work here. I might loathe using words like "elevate" and "subtext" in book reviews, but it honestly cannot be helped in this case. Stead's breathtaking illustrations elevate the story to a level I'm not even sure I entirely understand. The subtext is a novel.
Amos does not live in some faraway land, suspended in time, a 'la Thomas the Tank Engine. One of my young readers pointed out that his small shingled cottage is nestled between two larger high-rises. It's the sort of detail most grown-ups would miss. Despite other visual references to the modern world, even his number five bus stop looks like something straight out of a Mary Poppins production. Stead manages to communicate in images rather than words, that Amos lives in a gentler world not because he is protected by some magical bubble of old-timey goodness, but because he has chosen to inhabit the world in a different way than most folks. He goes about his day, caring for the people (okay, animals) he knows, with quiet diligence. Their visit to Amos and the way they each give something back, is equally genuine. A Sick Day for Amos McGee is not just a story on how to be a friend (although it is that too); it is about work. I don't mean jobs and paychecks, but rather, the small and seemingly insignificant decisions we make on a daily basis, that impact each and every thing we touch. Good work.
I don't know of many picture books that attempt to communicate in under thirty pages what it took one of my favorite novelists, George Eliot, nine hundred or so to convey in Middlemarch: "for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs." I might not have mentioned that quote during story-time (talk about tombs doesn't usually go over too well) but I still marveled at the similarities. Whether you're a four year old with a cold and a fondness for penguins, or an grown woman who needs a good kick in the pants, books like this one have a strange way of meeting you where you are. A Sick Day for Amos McGee, might not have enough bells and whistles to snag a Caldecott nomination this year (especially since it looks like everyone will be competing against Mr. Wiesner again...), but it might have enough of something else entirely: the ability to change your perspective on a thing or two. And make it that much easier to go to work the next morning.
For a sneak peak at some additional artwork and a great interview with Erin Stead, check out 7-Imp's wonderful preview, here.