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Adrian Simcox Does NOT Have a Horse

The eponymous Adrian Simcox in Marcy Campbell’s debut picture book Adrian Simcox Does NOT Have a Horse is bullied because of his poverty. Some have likened this book to Eleanor Estes’s classic chapter book The Hundred Dresses. I know many readers regard Dresses as a text that fosters empathy, but I can’t shake my own reading of the bullied, impoverished victim, Wanda Petronski, as a pitiable vehicle through whom the narrator, Maddie (a bystander to mean girl Peggy’s tormenting behavior) achieves growth. Here, through her sensitive depiction of Adrian Simcox, Corinna Luyken’s art prevents the story from being one in which a child’s material poverty indicates an innate purity that helps his tormentor, Chloe, see the error of her cruel ways. It does so by centering him and his magnificent imagination rather than marginalizing him and centering Chloe and her (eventual) growth. The result is that readers are visually invited to align themselves with imaginative Adrian and his horse — and not just with Chloe and her text-driven judgments and revelations.

Jacket art immediately prompts this allegiance between the reader and Adrian. Standing on either side of the title, its dismissive words stacked like a wall between them, are Chloe with her back to the far right of the cover — and Adrian facing her. This very positioning forces readers to oppose Chloe’s stance as we open the book, despite her implied physical resistance to that action. Furthermore, while Chloe stands in a patch of short purple and brownish grasses, behind Adrian is a riot of golden flora, rendered in painterly brushstrokes shot through with those same purples and browns. And within the negative space is a white, decidedly equine shape, evoking the horse Adrian imagines. We therefore begin the book able to see the horse Chloe cannot.

Several interior spreads reward the reader with repeated appearances of Adrian Simcox’s horse, served up as powerful visual counterpoints to Chloe’s persistent denials of its existence. She scowls at Jamie, who “will believe anything,” and is oblivious to the shape of a horse’s head bending down among the grasses behind a chain-link fence near this open-minded classmate.

Chloe is absent from the spread where Adrian Simcox makes blue chalk drawings of his horse while he tells a group of “little kids” about it. It’s implied that this scene is viewed from Chloe’s offstage perspective, while the smiling Adrian talks about his “beautiful horse with its white coat and golden mane.” Text tells us she overhears these words, but it seems she doesn’t notice the blue chalk drawings we can see.

Turn the page, and the rich darkness of the playground with its bright horses on the asphalt disappears. The resulting stark whiteness of the page-opening looks barren and cold as Adrian stands slouching on the verso, while distant on the facing recto Chloe hangs from the monkey bars yelling, “He’s lying! Adrian Simcox does NOT have a horse.” The largest characters on this spread are the “little kids.” Only the backs of their heads are visible, with art positioning readers as though we stand among them, robbed of the prior vision of blue horses on the blacktop, and taking in Adrian Simcox’s slumped posture and Chloe’s accusatory protest.

This depiction of Chloe, among others in the book, brings to mind not Louis Slobodkin’s gestural illustrations in The Hundred Dresses but Louis Darling’s expressive line drawings of characters in Beverly Cleary’s series about Ramona Quimby. The emotional dynamics between the characters, in text and art, also evoke something Quimby-like, when Chloe’s wise mother takes her to visit Adrian Simcox at his home, instead of chastising her daughter or trying to talk through everything. She doesn’t make eye contact with Chloe, nor even tell her where they’re headed, as they leave their comfortable, middle-class neighborhood to walk their dog and to go where “all the houses looked like they might fall down, and even though it wasn’t trash day, it looked like it was.”

When they arrive at Adrian Simcox’s house, art keeps Chloe off the page, instead showing her dog, straining on its leash, with its gaze directed up at a distant Adrian, implying Chloe’s own gaze. The reader, familiar by now with Luyken’s hidden horses, might spy another one hidden just below Adrian, though Chloe, of course, does not see it. While her mother chats with Adrian’s grandfather on the next spread, Adrian pets her dog, still smiling. “I like your dog,” he says in a generous overture, given how Chloe slighted him at school.

Luyken’s next spread is both a stand-out and a standoff. The close-up depiction of Chloe’s profile fills the left side of the verso and Adrian’s fills the right side of the recto. The illustration offers no relief from their locked gaze. The gutter divides them, the white of the page is merciless in how its emptiness forces the reader to see only them, and the isolation of the text to Chloe’s side of the spread underscores Adrian’s vulnerable silence as he waits to see if she will, again, hurl accusations of dishonesty at him.

But she doesn’t. “I didn’t say it because of how Adrian was looking and how it reminded me of when I told those little kids he was lying,” reads narrative text, as the visual perspective zooms out to show both children, still on opposite pages, but now small, with Adrian’s gaze dropped to the ground.

On the next spread Chloe has moved toward him a bit, and she holds a long stalk of golden grasses in front of her, letting them cross the gutter like a peace offering. Behind Adrian is the subtle shape of his horse’s profile in the grasses, still unseen by Chloe. But, even if she doesn’t yet see his horse, Chloe is listening now as he describes it.

The penultimate spread bursts with golden color as it provides a depiction of Adrian, large and strong, his head bowed and eyes closed. The large, vertical swath of open, negative space over the gutter can again be read as his horse’s profile leaning down, as though to nuzzle against him. Can Chloe, her gaze on Adrian implied in this spread, though she herself is unseen, finally see his horse? Accompanying text reads, “And then I thought Adrian Simcox had just about the best imagination of any kid in our whole school,” which suggests that in finally, truly listening to Adrian, Chloe begins to at least, and at last, see him.

The concluding spread affirms, that yes, she sees his horse, too. It’s more distinct, here, “the most beautiful horse of anyone, anywhere,” with its head and neck arching protectively over Adrian, its tail end toward Chloe. The grasses she holds aloft even help form its body by outlining the shape of its rear flanks that emerge in the negative space formed by the grasses and flowers crowding the ground and the backdrop of an off-white, tall fence behind the children. Chloe’s expression now holds wonder — and Adrian’s relaxed engagement.

This picture book can certainly provoke reflections on class and kindness, two themes I’ve seen readers comment upon in myriad reviews and posts. But where Luyken’s achievement shines brightest is in how her illustrations interpret the text to complicate its call for empathy. As art centers Adrian Simcox’s rich imagination and his generosity, Luyken asks readers to regard him not just as a poor victim, but as something of a hero, too. Meanwhile, Chloe’s poverty of imagination, made plain by artistic invitations for readers to align themselves with the object of her scorn, is rendered something piteous. Will the Caldecott committee see the profound artistic achievement in this interpretation of the text? Do you? I hope so, and for now I’m taking pleasure in imagining a shiny medal right above Adrian Simcox’s horse.

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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  1. Megan: Since my own review of this extraordinary picture book opens with a lengthy lead-in to “The Hundred Dresses” and Wanda Petroski, I feel I must address your fair enough assertion. I still believe that the Estes classic does foster empathy, and the basic mise en scene of both books are comparable even while veering off in different directions. The point of course is that these two books as well as Taro Yashima’s “Crow Boy” and Katie Couric’s “The Brand New Kid” are connected by their personification of a child who is different and misunderstood and how during the course of the narrative (to be sure the Estes book’s revelation occurs after a parting of the ways). You could practically hear Atticus Finch telling Scout “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around it.”

    In any case this is a towering work of scholarship on a stupendous book. There are seven days in the week and at least 2 or 3 of those I am counting this as the premiere American picture book achievement of 2018. And while it took me a while to muster up some sufficient appreciation for “The Book of Mistakes” (I do like it much more at present) I think Ms. Luyken is one of the nation’s finest children’s book illustrators. I am with you lock, stock on the penultimate golden-hued spread which may be the year’s most spectacular in any picture book. This depiction of Adrian, bowed head with orange hair in a tumult of yellow bleeding and autumn branch fever packs an emotional wallop and is at its essence a triumph of visual imagination. If Luyken wins the Caldecott Medal we can point to that rapturous tapestry as a prime reason, much as we can acknowledge the famous telephone scene in the 1936 “The Great Ziegfeld” as the reason Louis Rainer won her Academy Award. But the difference of course is that in that otherwise dull biopic, there wasn’t other passages to celebrate. In ADRIAN SIMCOX there is ravishing illustrative conformity. For example, Luyken follows up the thematic epiphany with a stunning encore, depicting Chloe making the ultimate concession: ” I also thought, he had the most beautiful horse of anyone, anywhere.” Then the illustrator comes full circle with revelatory resplendence, which is concluded on the sublimely sketched end papers where color says a thousand words.

    I can say I do myself see a brilliant interpretation of Ms. Campbell’s stirring minimalism and ultimately found ADRIAN SIMCOX DOES NOT HAVE A HORSE one of the three books in the Caldecott equation that left me emotionally gutted (the others are “The House That Once Was” by Fogliano and Smith) and “Blue” by Laura Vaccaro Seeger.”

    I was hoping this transcendent work would attract a great qualification essay and this from from Megan has afforded this book full justice and then some. I have my fingers crossed for this treasure.

  2. Allison Grover Khoury says:

    Wow. Just wow. Thank you for this brilliant description and analysis. I haven’t seen this book yet. But I’m ordering it right now.

  3. I can never figure out how to reply to comments here…so sorry just to be tacking further thoughts here. I mostly just want to chime in to say that Sam, your reference to To Kill a Mockingbird struck me because I’m working on an expanded version of this essay for a collection I’m developing, and it will include reference to Lee’s novel and how I co-read it with my Black son this year when it was assigned in his 8th grade class.

    In particular, I’m looking at how when Atticus Finch says “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around it” (and other similar lines) he’s never, ever asking his White children to empathize with Black people like the wrongfully accused Tom Robinson, nor his wife Helen, nor Calpurnia. This is just one way that Black characters are consistently marginalized and silenced in this text so that they end up serving as vehicles for White characters’ (incremental) growth.

    My son railed against the text and (among other things) asserted a powerful critique about its ahistorical treatment of the scene when three White children (Scout, Dill, and Jem) turn back a lynch mob. “That’s not realistic!” he said. “I mean if it was that easy, then not so many Black people would’ve been killed.” True enough. So, what is the function of this scene? My son and I talked about how it provides a sort of wish-fulfillment for White readers–like hey, look at those White kids doing the right thing and look at those White grown-ups changing. But the dishonesty at the heart of the scene is, at best, dismaying to a reader who sees through it…a reader like my son. It offers him the opposite of empathy as it profoundly dismisses his understanding of the history of lynching in the US.

    This shared-reading experience with my son informed my reading of Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse. I thought long and hard about how centering Chloe’s transformation could undo the ostensible empathetic project of the book by marginalizing Adrian Simcox, as surely as my son and I feel that Mockingbird undoes its ostensible empathetic aims by marginalizing Black characters (for lots and lots of great commentary on this text take a look at this #DisruptTexts twitter thread from educator Tricia Ebarvia https://twitter.com/triciaebarvia/status/1056370175195443200).

    But, the more time I spent with this picture book, the more I appreciated how Luyken’s art merges with Campbell’s text to create an iconotext that centers Adrian Simcox and his imagination and his strengths. I wonder what other readers think about this reading?

  4. Hi Megan. My reference point to that line from Lee’s novel -one of the most famous and identifiable in the book and indeed in twentieth century American literature- was from from Chapter 3, and it had nothing at all to do with Tom Robinson but with Boo Radley. My point of using it was deliberately to draw the similarities between the shy and reserved Boo (who is eternally misunderstood) and the characters from the other books who are misunderstood because they are different. I was not talking about race or racial implications as per Atticus Finch but a white-white comparison. I have my own opinion on “To Kill A Mockingbird” which I’ve taught several times during my teaching career, and while I am seeing Atticus in a more favorable light than you are overall I completely understand and respect what you are saying. I do feel there is ample evidence in the book to confirm Atticus is not biased and an adversary of ugly white supremacists, for whatever that misguided sequel might suggest.

    You certainly have quite a strong position on Lee’s novel and I applaud your son for his remarkable insight, but again I won’t take it any further and respect your views. I will say however that your interpretation is not one I have come across until now, though I will look closely at the link you provide. It seems the overwhelming position on this book holds Atticus in the highest moral regard.

  5. “This is just one way that Black characters are consistently marginalized and silenced in this text so that they end up serving as vehicles for White characters’ (incremental) growth.”

    One final comment though I promised not to take this any further since the line I used was about Boo Radley, not about Tom Robinson. I am thus discussing a matter that has nothing to do with my original contention. But it matters still greatly to me as this is one of my favorite novels ever and I taught it numerous times, even once staging a classroom play for my Junior Practicum. Though fiction Lee chronicled ugly white behavior and ignorance in the Deep South in the years when justice was non-existent. I understand why you bemoan “white characters’ incremental growth’ but I saw Lee as deliberately going that route to plead for reform and acknowledge that in a time of supreme ignorance whites must own up to their heinous behavior and bigotry, so white metamorphosis is indeed the template for societal change. Because Lee documents the subservient role of blacks accurately -while clearly condemning this shame does not mean that she is demeaning of slighting blacks no more that a book or film decrying the horrors of the Holocaust is demeaning Jews by showing a few heroic non-Jews bringing sanity into this unconscionable scenario.

  6. I just read the link. Oh boy. The advice given is to stop teaching TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD because the author is white. There are indeed plenty of books to amplify racial prejudice indeed -Richard Wright is an all-time favorite of mine- but that shouldn’t ever preclude a white person like Lee from presenting her/his own dramatic license on the scourge of racism. Why can’t books on the subject from both blacks and whites be taught? How else can we teach our kids that the oppressors were evil unless a member of that race owns up to the crimes? i am not getting the attack on the book at all and am deeply saddened at this subjective reading and the believe the complications of race should only be written about by one. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is a supreme masterpiece and while I must and will respect a contrary view I will stand my my position to the core of my being.

  7. I have no problem at all believing that a white lynch mob can be foiled by three children. I counter that it IS realistic. Their bigotry and intent to cause bodily harm was challenged by three “white” children, who while not exactly serving as a moral conscience, put a temporary clamp on their blind hatred and evil intents. The kids didn’t LITERALLY stop them, they gave pause, allowing a disaster to be averted.

    I can’t say how saddened I am by the views on that twitter link and am grateful that 99% of the liberal reading population rejects it. The book and the matter of race is being looked at wrongly.

  8. African-American Professor and author Alice Randall argues why “To Kill A Mockingbird” is as relevant as ever and how (as I contended in a previous comment) it clearly asserts that the problem in the south at the time the book was set were white people.

    http://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2015/07/17/to-kill-a-mockingbird-randall

    Other African-Americans have praised the book and just in the last year it was voted the Greatest American novel in a massive polling by PBS and the Greatest Novel of All-Time from any country in a polling conducted by the U.K.’s Telegraph in June of this year.

    I think Tricia Evarbia is just following a school of thought. I spent hours tonight reading through the articles about black marginalization and the points you raised, but I just don’t agree with them at all. Roxanne Gay is ONE African-American who has issues and she does a good job dissecting Tom Santopietro’s book, one I regard highly myself. I have encountered a few people who say Shakespeare is amoral and a bad writer, and Moby-Dick is a bad novel. All masterpieces and the greatest artists have some detractors. I am confident Lee’s novel will survive well into the future and remains for so many reasons an invaluable teaching took about racism. One caveat: A middle school teacher must be very adept at explaining the matter of Mayella Ewell’s lies. Purposeful deception is a difficult proposition at that age.

  9. African-American Jocelyn A. Chadwick has been an English teacher for over thirty years—beginning at Irving High School in Texas and later moving on to the Harvard Graduate School of Education where she was a professor for nine years and still guest lectures. Dr. Chadwick also serves as a consultant for school districts around the country and assists English departments with curricula to reflect diversity and cross-curricular content. For the past two years, she has served as a consultant for NBC News Education’s Common Core Project for Parents, ParentToolkit. In June 2015, Chadwick was elected Vice President for the National Council of Teachers of English. Throughout her career, she has published articles in leading academic journals, presented papers at scholarly conferences, and conducted teacher workshops around the country and abroad. Her many publications include The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, “Making Characters Come Alive! Using Characters for Identification and Engagement,” “Assessment: Our (Re) Inventing the Future of English,” and her April 2015 book, Common Core: Paradigmatic Shift. Summing up her career, Dr. Chadwick says she was born to be an English teacher and will always be one.

    Ms. Chadwick speaks reverentially about TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD:

    ” I first read this novel ions ago at an early age because my parents thought it would “be good for me to do so.” At that time and as a young Texan, I identified with some instances in the book, the dialect, for example. But to be honest, I resonated most with Scout, for she was outspoken, ever-curious, fearless, a risk-taker. Scout was like me, I thought — a much younger version of all the adult women in my parents’ world.

    As I progressed in my career to become an English teacher, I reread this novel and would eventually teach it to high school students, which has increased its value for me. Each generation of readers, from the 1960s to 2016, finds new meaning in it.

    What of my colleague’s daughter — what keeps a 14-year-old returning to her dog-eared copy? “Just as Jem and Scout face the injustices of the world, through each reading,” my colleague told me, “so does my daughter. My daughter has grown up with Jem and Scout, has lost her simple, innocent view of the world with them and, most importantly, has discovered the importance of acceptance.”

    The novel compels her to look inward and to think.

    Thank you, Harper Lee; we will miss you, but your Maycomb and its inhabitants live on in perpetuity — reminding and forever teaching. Forever compelling us to think.”

  10. And finally it was beyond inspiring to hear our beloved African-American two-term President Barack Obama (a very great man I voted for twice and campaigned for vigorously) reference Atticus Finch and that very line that initiated this thread in his towering January 10, 2017 farewell speech, where he refers to Finch as ‘one of the great characters in American fiction.’ The excerpt is as follows:

    “Going forward, we must uphold laws against discrimination – in hiring, in housing, in education and the criminal justice system. That’s what our Constitution and highest ideals require. But laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change. If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, each one of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” “

  11. Susan Dailey says:

    I was so excited that we would be discussing this book. I’m blown away by how Corinna Luyken was able to create the horse using negative space! Every once in awhile I encounter illustrations where I think, “How does someone even do that?” This book contains many.

    I’m impressed by Luyken’s use of white space. She gives the scenes room to breathe and depicts emotions very well. Some many powerful spreads. Great review, Megan!

  12. Susan, I did observe how Luyken mastered the use of white space in “The Book of Mistakes” and love your assertion “she gives the scenes room to breathe” in this new masterpiece. Sarting with the opening end papers which are white with a single dulled purple-brown bush of flowers to the extreme right which thematically portends the seeds of a friendship and the darkness that eventually turns to light, the ignorance that morphs into imagination, disbelief transforming into acceptance and understanding. Similarly the frontispiece is predominantly white, save for the depiction of flower growth parallels a young person’s coming of age. The copyright-title page double page spread is the loveliest in that department of any picture book published in 2018, right down to the lettering and the upper case orange used to connote the double meaning of “not.” The yellow flowers illuminate the brown foliage during what is seemingly late in the year’s third quarter. Orange-haired Adrian is first seen daydreaming at a long lunchroom table sitting by himself, as all the others find a taker for their chatter.

  13. Megan, thanks for such a thoughtful review of this book. I’m a fan of Corinna Luyken though I’m finding this one a tricky to hand-sell at the bookstore. We sold plenty of her Book of Mistakes but I have found when I hand a grownup this book in a busy shop, they leaf through it quickly and don’t see the horse. I’m completely perplexed. This has happened multiple times with adult shoppers–though not with children. I want them to love and appreciate the book, but I don’t know how to get them to slow down enough to really look at it. Here’s hoping a shiny medal on the cover will make them look!

  14. Glad to see more people weighing in with enthusiasm for this picturebook—could it end up being a dark horse (ha! forgive me, I couldn’t resist). I’ve been talking with my grad students about this book this week and how its use of white space to make the horse visible aligns readers with Adrian. This offers both an ideological stance that resists marginalization of the targeted character, and a real triumph of artistic interpretation of verbal text to create something bigger than the sum of its parts.

    How to make grownups see the horse in the bookstore (or the library for that matter?) Hmmm…maybe make a display of hidden-pictures books? Or display two copies, one closed and one opened to show the whole wrap-around jacket. Or add a sign that says “Can you see Adrian Simcox’s horse?”

    Another thing I’ve been reflecting on through this picture book is how its themes of looking/seeing hearing/listening are so well suited to the multimodal form. The story tells us that we can’t see someone else’s perspective without really listening to them, particularly if that perspective (like Adrian’s) is unorthodox or somehow marginalized. Moving away from sensory language, understanding worldview means learning about context. This picture book with its interdependent art and text offers so very many opportunities for readers to come together in conversations about how we see the world differently from each other. My hope is that what I read as the art’s sensitive centering of Adrian will be empowering to kids who’ve felt somehow silenced in their lives.

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