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Ideas Are All Around

stead_ideas-are-all-aroundI suspect I will be in the minority when I tell you my thoughts about this book. But as I tell my students, you have to have the spine to say what you think, and the tact to do it in a way that is direct but not mean.

But, wow, is that hard. Especially when people I respect love this book.

Enough procrastinating. Here goes.

I have huge respect for Philip C. Stead. I am kind of in love with his dog. But I don’t love Ideas Are All Around. I think it could be an interesting read for adults who want to know more about how picture books are created, but when I consider this book for a child audience, I can’t get around the idea that it seems to be fishing for compliments.

In case you haven’t seen this, it’s written in the first person by a nameless narrator who says, “I have to write a story today. / That is my job, I write stories. / But today I don’t have any ideas.” The narrator then takes his dog, Wednesday, for a walk, noticing animals and plants and buildings and other aspects of their journey. Before the walk begins, we see a blue page with scribbles, a Polaroid photo of a yellow and black “walk” sign, and an illustration of Wednesday. As the walk proceeds, photos and illustrations are juxtaposed, and Stead uses his white space to its fullest. The book is beautiful to look at. The text is contemplative and appears to have been typed on a vintage typewriter (a notion reinforced by a Polaroid of just such a typewriter at the end of the book).

Book reviewers are supposed to critique the book as it exists, however much they want to discuss what the book might have become if the author had made different decisions. Since this is a blog post and not a book review, I feel okay about breaking that rule. When I first started to read this book, I was hoping it would take a different direction. It was clear that it would be a book about where ideas come from (great idea), but I was hoping it would be more specific and child-centered, showing how one specific idea enters an adult’s head and is molded into a seemingly simple picture book — one that is “first and foremost,” as Barbara Bader says, “an experience for a child.” Instead, we see an adult going for a grown-up walk with his dog, stopping to talk to other adults, coming home and writing…what? We’re not quite sure, but it seems that this is a truly meta book, that the very book we have just finished reading is the book Stead writes after his walk.

There are some things I do love in this book — the things that made me hope it would turn in a different direction, away from a self-conscious text that could be a poem and into something that children would adore. The imagined animal passengers on the train; the Polaroids, especially that spread full of of sky photos that denote the passage of time while people admire Wednesday.

What I hoped was for one of those many small encounters to be transformed into the beginning of an idea for a picture book. The books I most admire are by brainy people who don’t need to show how brainy they are. They simplify and simplify until a book is just right. They don’t mind that those earlier drafts with all the poetic descriptions got left behind. What’s important is the final, child-friendly product.

Put in the context of the Caldecott committee, I can see this book appealing greatly to some of them, since it describes in part what they themselves have been doing for the past year or more: they transition from their adult lives into the brains of all the children they know (and used to be) as they look at lots and lots of picture books.

Now I really want to know what you all think. I would be happy to have someone point out what I missed in this book. Because I really do love Wednesday, and I do admire Philip Stead.

 

Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the creative director for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogs for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.

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Comments

  1. Sam Juliano says:

    I must say I rather adore the self-conscious aspect myself as it imparts a psychological heft to these proceedings not to mention Stead’s most welcome world view. But though I couldn’t disagree with you more across the board I greatly respect that you acknowledge your minority position right at the outset. IDEAS ARE ALL AROUND bursts with creativity in every aspect of it’s presentation. That it is an outgrowth of the narrative’s steadfast notion that ideas are hard to connect with makes it ironically satisfying, but the prime reason why it is a bookmaking treasure is the aesthetic chemistry between photos and drawings, and the manner the book bridges the forms with with quietly moving prose. It is another unqualified triumph for Stead and should be among the small stack of finalists during Caldecott deliberations. It is one of my own supreme favorite books of 2016, and without question for me Phillip Stead’s masterpiece.

    Is there anything more beautiful than that ravishing sunflower?

    As always a master class post in the series.

  2. Lolly, thank you for this post. It is good to know that I am not alone in feeling this book just doesn’t quite meet the mark.

  3. I adore this and every other Stead book. When I read this the 1st time, I loved the pictures and illustrations, such a unique combination. The 2nd time, it was the ‘this is my day’ kind of story that made me love it even more. The 3rd time was as I was reading it to kindergarten and 1st grade students and they ‘got’ it. For me, that’s what really makes a book a winner.

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