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It’s Only Stanley

agee_it's only stanleyPursuant to Robin and KT’s post on Wednesday, each of us will have his or her own list of persistent omissions from the Caldecott rolls; mine is topped by Eric Carle, Rosemary Wells — and our subject for today, Jon Agee.

Why not Jon Agee? At the Horn Book at Simmons Colloquium earlier this month, he joked about making a career out of picture books about middle-aged men. Is that it? Or is it that his work is too — and here I will use a word beloved by reviewers if less so by their editors — cartoonlike? Not heartwarming enough? Too brisk? Too brusque?

It’s Only Stanley begins on the page before the title page, with our eponymous beagle-hero Stanley asleep on the porch while a “HOWOOOOOO” is howled from a mysterious source beyond the edge of the image. The title page shows Stanley looking up at the moon; a turn of the page takes us indoors, where Stanley’s human family is sleeping — or trying to. Mom Wilma Wimbledon is jolted awake by (another page-turn) Stanley howling a response. The pattern continues thus: an ever-increasing number of Wimbledons are awakened by strange noises, with the parents’ bed becoming commensurately crowded while each following double-page spread shows Stanley making one noise or another as he — well, what exactly is he doing?

The visual tempo is just wonderful, with a vignette of the latest alarm over a mysterious noise facing a full-page picture of the increasingly crowded bed, and the page-turn revealing Stanley’s actions, whether he’s — allegedly — fixing the oil tank, repairing the old TV, or clearing the drain. These spreads are filled with literally loopy wires and tubes and hoses  that definitely make sense to Stanley (you can tell by the look of determination in his eye) if looking like barely controlled chaos to us. Meanwhile, the bed upstairs starts to look like something from The Napping House as the six Wimbledons, plus their cat, cram themselves in. You know something has to give, and it does, in a most spectacular fashion.

I know, I know: Caldecott recognition is given for the pictures. Consideration of text is limited to its failings (“…other components of a book are to be considered especially when they make a book less effective as a children’s picture book. Such other components might include the written text, the overall design of the book, etc.”) and consideration of page-turns — perhaps the defining feature of the picture-book form — is lumped ignominously into that “etc.,” if anywhere. But pictures, text, and page-turns in this book are, while fabulous in themselves, nothing without their fellows. The text — rhyming, no less, and hilariously and perfectly so — is patterned and placed to carefully support the visual narrative, and as for the page-turns, look at the closing pages: Stanley’s noises have the family at the end of its rope:

“‘I understand,’ said Walter,

‘And I’ll talk to him right now.’

But just as Walter turned to go,

There was a big —”

The page turn reveals the conclusion of the rhyme in big letters splashed right across the spread — “KAPOW!” — as the family goes flying (more than they know). The rhyme picks up again for its last iteration, but this time the closing punchline is left to the pictures alone, which in a sequence of panels make very clear just what the last word needs to be, but left to be shouted by the reader. Loudly, one guesses.

BONUS POINTS FOR THE CAT. I am not generally a fan of those whimsical little cats whose unspoken presence in a picture book evokes coos of delight among people who like that sort of thing. But the cat here, Max, provides sublime counterpoint to the industrious Stanley, whose tinkering inadvertently visits one outrage after another upon his feline sibling. Should we be a  little worried that Max is not to be found on the concluding page? I do hope No Animals Were Harmed in the Making of This Book.

 

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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Comments

  1. I’m a huge fan of both THE INCREDIBLE PAINTING OF FELIX CLOUSSEAU and TERRIFIC and always look forward to new Agee.
    I’m holding out hope that the band Promise Makers will record a version of IT’S ONLY STANLEY as they’ve done with some other Agee books. Their version of TERRIFIC is terrific.
    http://www.jonagee.com/agee/music/terrific.m3u

  2. Susan Dailey says:

    Roger, I bet the cat is recuperating in the bed having learned to give Stanley a wide berth. 🙂

    Since reading this blog, I no longer immediately discount illustrations described as cartoonlike. The comments have helped me appreciate their effectiveness for certain types of stories and this is definitely one of them. I looked through the illustrations before reading the text and could understand what was happening. Congrats to Agee for pulling that off!

  3. Jon Agee is a genius.

  4. And, Roger, what you say about the page-turn being so often overlooked — by authors/illustrators and critics alike — is true. Jon is a master of the form, one of the few to fully understand the potential of the picture book.

  5. Susan Dailey says:

    At a conference at the Mazza Museum, Jon Rocco said that effective page turns are the Holy Grail of picture books. (Not a direct quote, but something to that effect) It made me appreciate their power. Perhaps it’s why I’m find myself slightly disappointed by picture books that end on a double-page spread.

  6. Hope Crandall says:

    Just read this to my grandkids. I was laughing so hard I could hardly finish. We love it!

  7. I thought this book was very child friendly, the story was very funny. Me and my children laughed so hard.

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