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The Obstinate Pen

the obstinate penHere’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?)

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.



  1. I LOVE this book. My five year old never fails to laugh great big belly laughs when the pen writes “Kiss her, Bananahead!” That said, I feel every time we read it that there is a page (illustration or text) missing between the second and third pages (between Flood caressing the pen and kicking Horace out), and a few other places where the text is a bit uneven and the illustrations don’t fully balance it. And while I mostly read picture books as a parent, and without the attention to art the Caldecott committee would give, I don’t think this one stands out enough in terms of the illustration — it’s charming and quirky and delightful (and stands up surprisingly well to repeat readalouds), but not quite blow-me-away levels of distinguished.

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