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A Perfect Day

Lane Smith’s A Perfect Day was released early this year (February) and is a book that has made an appearance on multiple Caldecott prediction lists throughout the year. It’s a story that, from a pedagogical point of view (I was trained as a school librarian, so I can’t help it), works well to demonstrate point of view. And it’s a story that will get child readers thinking about how our perspectives shape what we see and how we define the world — much like last year’s Caldecott Honor book They All Saw a Cat.

But Smith also subverts what could have been a one-note story about how various creatures define happiness into a tale of mischief and the food chain — and how those atop it sometimes determine the rules. (Is it a stretch to say this layer of dark humor gives the book a political relevance? Maybe. But it did cross my mind as I read it.)

If you haven’t seen it yet, let me summarize: sunny yellow endpapers and a big, warm sun open the book. We eventually see a house in the country. We meet Cat, happy in a bed of daffodils; Dog, wading in a tub of water; Chickadee, eating seed from the bird feeder; and Squirrel, despite not being able to get to the birdseed, finding a corncob in the grass. A boy named Bert is behind all of this, filling the tub with water for Dog, refilling the bird feeder, and dropping the corncob for Squirrel. It “was a perfect day” for each of these animals, we read as we meet each one.

It turns out that both grammar and font size are crucial in this book, given the turn the story takes in the form of Bear’s appearance. “It WAS a perfect day for Squirrel,” we suddenly read, the “was” enlarged and emboldened. Squirrel’s happiness is now very much in the past tense, as Bear barges in to take the corncob. (This is, thus far, my favorite picture book spread of 2017.) Bear also essentially takes away Chickadee’s, Dog’s, and Cat’s contentment by lumbering in and taking what he wants. The notion of a “perfect day” is a thing of the past for the now-hapless small creatures, having joined Bert inside the house on the final page to stare out the window in shock. Bear, in fact, is the one now having a perfect day.

All of this is accomplished with a very spare text. As I said, font size communicates much meaning here.

And so does the artwork. Frisky is a word that comes to mind for these mixed-media illustrations, which play with scale in effective ways. Bear, the mischief-maker of this tale, takes up nearly every inch of some of these spreads. And his entrance still manages to give readers a bit of a jolt, despite his appearance on the cover. On each spread where we read “it was a perfect day for …”, the illustration takes up about three-quarters of the space — with a column of white space occupying a quarter of it on the verso page. So, when Bear suddenly appears, we see him walk right through that white space on a wordless spread with Chickadee and Squirrel. He’s looking right at Squirrel’s corncob, almost oblivious to the days he’s about to ruin for the smaller creatures.

You can see some of Smith’s broad paintbrush strokes on some of the animals — you want to reach out and touch them — which gives the book spontaneity and energy. Pay close attention to font color too, and you’ll see that each animal gets its own color, which is re-visited on the later spreads: The letters in “It WAS a perfect day for Dog” are in the light blue color assigned to Dog earlier, yet the “was” is bigger, bolder, and assigned the dark brown color given to Bear, the same color as his fur.

The story’s ending, as everyone stares sadly (from indoors) at Bear, is a freeze frame of an ending. It’s abrupt, but Smith communicates a great deal by having the text read “It was a perfect day for Bear,” yet showing us Squirrel, Chickadee, Cat, Dog, and Bert instead. Bear’s perfect day left them disappointed. “Perfect” doesn’t exist on its own, after all. It’s in the eye of the beholder.

Read the Horn Book Magazine review of A Perfect Day.

 

Julie Danielson About Julie Danielson

Julie Danielson writes about picture books at the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. She also writes for Kirkus Reviews and BookPage and is a lecturer for the School of Information Sciences graduate program at the University of Tennessee. Her book Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, written with Betsy Bird and Peter D. Sieruta, was published in 2014.

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Comments

  1. This is one of my favorites for this year. So simple, yet so engaging. The illustrations are essential to the story, and, in fact, carry most of the story. This is definitely a case of “delineation of plot…or characters through the pictures”.

    I’d argue that the WAS isn’t the bear’s brown, it’s a darker, blacker color. Even if it’s not the bear’s, though, the change in color as well as change in size and font is still a visual indicator. (And as an aside, I wonder if the Geisel committee is looking at this as well.)

    I love the texture of the paintings. Sometimes it is brushstrokes, other times it has a texture that makes me think of when you press a second piece of paper on top of thick paint and then quickly draw it away. Actually a lot of it looks like it was printed in a similar manner, or was printed and digitally manipulated. I don’t know that much about art techniques from anything other than the role of an admirer.

    In any case, the brushstrokes and other techniques help to create a sense of the fur. This is reinforced when I noticed that Chickadee, the only animal without fur, doesn’t have the clear strokes in the paint. Instead it has what looks like sponge painting, creating a layered texture that is different, but similar, to the furry animals.

    This one is in my top five at the moment. It was the first book I shared with the students I am doing a Mock Caldecott with, so they didn’t have the vocabulary and context to provide the detailed feedback they have for some of the other books, but it was universally enjoyed from first grade through fourth grade.

  2. Thanks for these observations, Alys. Lane visited my blog when this book first came out to talk about it (very briefly) and share some images. I just looked that up. He wrote:

    “In my spare time I’ve been doing large paintings on canvas in gesso and cold wax medium. Just personal stuff. The technique of gesso and expressionistic brush stokes from my personal work managed to seep its way into my animal illustrations of A Perfect Day.”

    I looked and don’t see any kind of copyright-page note about the medium. (Like you, I’m curious!)

    I’m glad to hear so many of your students love it. I haven’t had a chance to share this one in a group story time yet.

  3. This is yet another gem of a picture book that deserves to be spoken of in the most glowing of terms. Smith’s Caldecott Honor winning GRANDPA GREEN is one of the most resplendent and deeply moving picture books ever, and last year I was a strong advocate for THERE WAS A TRIBE OF KIDS. Of course, his spirited collaborations with Jon Szieska, one of which (THE STINKY CHEESE MAN) brought him another Caldecott Honor are already classics, and I did love his western picture book with Bob Shea two years back. This all means of course that Smith is one of my favorite illustrators, and I’m thinking he has a real chance to shore with the committee again for this fabulous piece of craftsmanship which is enormously popular with the first graders under my stead. The story is suffused with humor and whimsy (I really like your suggestion that the dark humor holds some political relevence). This is certainly a bear far different than the lazy one in Janet Stevens’ Caldecott Honnor winning TOPS AND BOTTOMS. I am thrilled to read about your “favorite spread of 2017” in any picture book, as I always try and sort that question out. The bear with the corncob must surely count as one of the year’s best indeed. There are a number of other qualifiers, (I will mention the nocturnal “Comes a breeze” canvas in ALL EARS, ALL EYES, the highway maze in THE RIVER, the wolves howling around our intrepid hero in WOLF IN THE SNOW, the red-punch spread in FEATHER and “Whoa Child” from MUDDY, the stunning cover of MIGUEL’S BRAVE KNIGHT, the Gwendolyn Brooks tapestry in OUT OF WONDER, and favorite spreads in FULL OF FALL, ROBINSON, AFTER THE FALL etc. but I realize this isn’t the right thread to divert quite that far off. Yet I have done so, just because it was fun. I think the “It Was a Perfect Day for Cat” canvas with bear in circular motion is especially fantastic too. Ha! Textures (I love rubbing my fingers on this cover in response to your own stated urges :)) the brush stroke lines, the uncanny and sublime incorporation of sunlit pastel color (pink is superbly employed) into each spread, and as always the line drawings discreetly included are all exemplary. This immesnsely appealing, uncomplicated book for the youngest set appears to have everything going for it with not a flaw to be found. That it is also one of the most beautifully illustrated picture books would appear to make it one of the supreme favorites with the committee along with WOLF IN THE SNOW and a few others, so I would think there is a very good chance Smith will received his third Honor or first metal. But predicting is not easy at all.

    Just such a fabulous, hugely insightful and effervescent qualifying essay on one of the year’s best picture books.

  4. The mushroom cloud finale and black pages in THE SECRET PROJECT must also be named as among the finest spreads of the year.

  5. Susan Dailey says:

    To appropriate the famous line from “Jerry Maguire,” this book HAD me at the dust jacket. Not only does the bear look textured; the dust jacket HAS texture. Sumptuous! It would be a perfect day (in my opinion) if this expressive, illustration-driven book was announced as one of the winners on February 12th.

    As to it’s chances with the Geisel committee, does anyone know if the script text of the title would be an issue for them? Does the Geisel award only consider the words and not the fonts?

  6. That is a great question, Susan. We are going to have a visit later from the women who blog at Guessing Geisel. In the meantime, I will ask them!

  7. Susan, because I promised an answer: Amy Seto Forrester at Guessing Geisel says that, yes, the committee very much considers fonts and that emerging readers can often be thrown off by decorative fonts. She added that the ideal font is one that is clear and mimics the way that kids are learning how to write in school.

  8. Susan Dailey says:

    Jules,

    Thanks so much for checking about the Geisel criteria. The font inside “The Perfect Day” is readable–maybe the title font won’t be a big issue. Excited to find out there is a site devoted to Geisel predictions. I will look for it.

    Susan

  9. Brenda Martin says:

    Let’s also be fair that the font on the cover is not exactly illegible to a young person. The r and f of Perfect are the only letters that do not closely resemble what a child learning the alphabet would encounter. And even then, children at any age are going to eventually need to recognize that cursive r and flowery f as those respective letters, even if they’re never to take a cursive handwriting course. I’d be really displeased if something this minor “disqualified” it from the running.

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