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
Megan Dowd Lambert

Megan Dowd Lambert is an instructor at Simmons University’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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Megan Dowd Lambert

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.

Posted : Dec 05, 2018 05:05

Rosanne Parry

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!

Posted : Dec 04, 2018 02:43

Sam Juliano

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.

Posted : Dec 03, 2018 11:11

Susan Dailey

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!

Posted : Dec 03, 2018 10:16

Sam Juliano

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." "

Posted : Dec 03, 2018 08:23

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