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BGHB at 50: Seeing the Grey: Reading Molly Bang’s The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher with Children

I served on the 2012 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards committee with Thom Barthelmess and Lauren Adams, and I wrote about my kids’ responses to our selections here. So when the Horn Book editors issued an invitation to reflect on past winners and honorees for BGHB’s fiftieth anniversary, I decided to branch out from my committee’s selections. Even after restricting myself to the picture books, I found an embarrassment of riches. Then I came across Molly Bang’s The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher, a 1980 Picture Book Honor Book.

When I read wordless picture books like this one at a Whole Book Approach storytime, I have children sit in a circle where they can all see me holding the book, and I tell them that I will go around the circle, one by one, to give each child a chance to read a picture. With this particular book, I also prompt kids to consider the nearly square shape of the book and how it creates a sense of claustrophobia in the chase scenes, as full-bleed art with shifting points of view sometimes bumps up against the gutter to create facing single-spread illustrations, and sometimes expands across the gutter for full-bleed double-page spreads. These layout changes create a sense of disorientation that permeates readings of the sequential pictures, as one must determine the relationship between verso and recto at each page opening.

A high point in the drama occurs when the Strawberry Snatcher lunges across the gutter to the recto to try to snatch away the Grey Lady’s berry basket.

“He’s in her space now!” a third grader exclaimed during a storytime I led at his school.

His classmates cheered on the Grey Lady as the next child in the circle read the subsequent picture, in which the Grey Lady runs to escape the Strawberry Snatcher’s grasping, blue hands. Bang’s visual characterizations lend a fantastical feeling to the story, with the Strawberry Snatcher depicted as a sinister, lurking, elfin creature with spindly limbs and a face partially obscured by a pointy hat, while the Grey Lady is rounded and soft, enveloped in grey clothing but with a kindly face the color of the berries she is trying to bring home to her family. It’s a clear antagonistic dynamic that is enhanced by creepy, dreamlike surroundings and the presence of other fantastical-looking background characters who appear at various points in the Strawberry Snatcher’s pursuit of the Grey Lady.

The falling action of the story arrives when the Grey Lady escapes into a landscape dominated by the same hue she wears. Her face and basket appear like floating spots of color against the grey of the page.

“Now she’s camouflaged!” another child.

“And he’s confused,” added another, referencing the Strawberry Snatcher, who appears in simultaneous succession across the spread as he unsuccessfully searches for the Grey Lady. He never finds her, and she safely arrives home, out of the grey and into the warmth offered by her waiting family.

But before readers are treated to this happy homecoming, Bang offers a resolution to the Strawberry Snatcher’s story when he spies a clump of wild blackberry bushes and sits down to feast. His whole appearance softens, his facial expression curving into a satisfied smile, and then his hat is gone and a soft cloud of brightly colored hair is visible, lending his appearance a warmth and gentleness heretofore unseen.

“He bloomed!” said one of the children, and I was delighted by this word choice, which both described the Strawberry Snatcher’s emotional transformation and highlighted his sense of oneness with the fruited foliage of the setting. “And it’s kind of like he’s grey, too,” she continued. “Not in the color, but because he’s not all bad or all good.”

“Yeah,” added a classmate. “He’s not a bad guy. He was only hungry.”

This empathetic reading gave me chills. Yes, we’d been talking about grey as a color, as a defining visual characteristic of the Grey Lady and the landscape into which she disappears, but these third graders expanded our conversation to consider greyness as a metaphor for complexity.

With the words, “He’s not a bad guy. He was only hungry,” our conversation shifted to consider whether the Grey Lady, too, was grey not just “in the color” but in terms of her character’s goodness or badness.

Should she have shared the berries?

Some children decided this would have been the best moral choice, but others disagreed and said that she had every right to keep the berries she’d bought.

Still other students added that the Grey Lady had reason to be afraid of the Strawberry Snatcher, and that if he’d wanted her to share he shouldn’t have just tried to snatch from her, and he shouldn’t have chased her.

Finally, the third graders wondered why the Strawberry Snatcher didn’t have money to buy his own berries, and why the Grey Lady did, provoking reflections on poverty, homelessness, and hunger.

“It’s not fair that some people have enough money and food and some people don’t,” was a conclusion that everyone agreed on. There was no grey area here.

Bang’s website includes commentary on the fraught road to publication that this picture book took, along with the negative reviews it received. She writes:

I remember one from the New York Times that said that the weird-looking characters and flashy colors were an indication that I was part of the drug culture (I had smoked marijuana once and hated it) and the detailed pictures told no real story but were merely an excuse to show off. Something like that. So the book sold few copies, and I was pretty discouraged. Then the following spring, it won a Caldecott Honor Award, and suddenly everybody thought it was a creative and fascinating book, and it sold quite well. When the person from the committee called me, I remember asking if they had read the reviews. She answered, “We don’t make our decisions based on reviews. We make our own decisions.”

I think that part of this picture book’s success lies in the fact that, as a wordless book and as one that offers readers happy endings for both protagonist and antagonist, it allows readers to “make our own decisions.” It withholds black-and-white answers and invites us to see the grey.

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Megan Dowd Lambert About Megan Dowd Lambert

Megan Dowd Lambert is an instructor at Simmons College’s Center for the Study of Children’s Literature. For nearly ten years she also worked in the education department of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.

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