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Meet the Dullards

pennypacker_meet the dullardsToday we’re considering Meet the Dullards by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Daniel Salmieri. If you haven’t had a look at this book yet, do yourself a favor and go find it. It’s far from dull.

As you can see from the cover, there’s something going on here between the text and the art similar to Marla Frazee’s A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever. Inside the book, the text tells us what the parents think is happening (nothing, because they value dullness above all else), while the art shows us what the disobedient children are doing on the sly. Design elements in the book support this dichotomy as well, from the yellow and red starburst on the cover — “Extra boring edition!!” — immediately followed by the dull thump of plain gray endpapers.

When Robin reviewed this book in the Magazine, she pointed out a similarity between Salmieri’s characters and Gru from the animated movie Despicable Me. They all wear gray and have substantial bodies, no necks, and spindly legs and arms. But where Gru is grumpy, Mr. and Mrs. D tend to just look blank. At first glance, their three children seem to be the same, but a closer look at their small pen-drawn features reveals precise emotions.

The art here is decidedly odd, and for a good reason. The absurdist text calls for something similar in the art, and Salmieri keeps his figures and backgrounds simple and his page designs static, up to a point. The humor comes when we notice the tiny differences between two similar illustrations, as when the three children are sitting on the floor watching an unplugged TV. In the next drawing, everything is the same except all three have turned their heads to the window where there is green grass, blue sky, and a yellow sun. Is there any doubt that we will see those children jump out that window by the time the book is done?

Books like this, with one central joke, can be tricky to pull off. When the joke is made over and over ad nauseum, once through the book can feel like an eternity. Or, all the pages might be leading to a surprise punch line. That’s all very well, but what child will ask for that book to be read again? Pennypacker and Salmieri have found a delicate balance here and made it look easy. But it’s not easy. It takes a lot of collaboration and an awareness of audience.

I’m hoping a lot of you have seen this book, which came out way back in March. There’s a lot more to notice and comment on. And do you think it has a chance for the Caldecott? Humorous books are always a long shot, as are books with art that looks simple. But Caldecott committees are known for paying close attention to detail, so I think this one actually has a chance of being an honor book.

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. Susan Dailey says:

    I love the way Salmieri foreshadows the final illustration throughout the book. The characters are almost 2-d in a 3-d world, which is a wonderful choice to accentuate their personalities (or lack of). Even the title fonts and colors hints at the dichotomy between the words and the illustrations. And that spread where the parents discover the wallpaper is so funny!

  2. I just got this book in and was back looking at this review, Lolly, to think it all through before deciding which grade to read it with first. There are some laugh-out-loud spreads and lots of enjoyable little jokes I think our third graders will appreciate – the paint color when they paint over the glorious room with the yellow flowered walls. I love the kids and their spunk and their determination. I dread where the parents will move once they discover their kids have joined the circus – a gulag in Siberia?

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