Here’s a book that was a big favorite around the Horn Book early in the year. I still love it and will add it to my personal collection, but I have to admit that its chances for a Caldecott seem a lot slimmer now that the year is drawing to a close.
The central character here isn’t a person or animal but a pen — and it’s not just obstinate, it’s subversive. When the story begins, we meet stuffy Uncle Flood and his small nephew, Horace. Keep your eye on Horace. When Flood sits down to write, his brand new pen refuses to cooperate, writing “You have a BIG nose” and “Your hair is like a bird’s nest.” Tossed out the window, the pen is picked up by a police officer who tries to write a ticket for Miss Weeble. When the pen writes, “Kiss her, banana head!,” it sparks a romance. No longer needed, the pen next attaches itself to Mrs. Norkham Pigeon-Smythe who is so tickled by the contrary things it writes that she throws a party so the pen can insult all her guests.
Finally, our hero finds its way back to young Horace who (of course) reveals the cause of the pen’s crankiness. Horace doesn’t even try to write. He draws pictures and we see that THIS is what the pen wanted to do all along.
Dormer draws with casual flair, creating characters that are large in their centers and become skinnier as they radiate outward, making their feet and hands tiny and pointy. Their faces tend to have expressive googly eyes and sharp noses, perfectly suited to the broad humor. Every time the pen writes something, that text is hand-drawn as part of the illustration. Perhaps foreshadowing the conclusion?
Award committees (and reviewers) love books about books, just as the people who choose the Oscars love movies about movies. This book isn’t so much about books as it is about what goes into making a picture book: writing, drawing, and ideas that come from…somewhere. Sometimes what we write or draw comes out the way we want it to, but what do we make of ideas that don’t seem to come from our conscious thoughts? Sometimes they really do feel as if they just come from the hand or the pen. So is this pen providing a direct line to the subconscious? No, I don’t think Dormer is after anything so pat, and that’s one reason I like this book so much. But the pen as a character does seem to have a bead on that semi-magical, semi-demonic force that can lead us to write or draw something we didn’t know we were thinking about.
So there you go. As I said before, while I do love this book, I think its appeal comes more from the concept than from the “distinguished” quality of the art. What do you think? And what do you think a Caldecott Committee would think? (And what would the pen think?)