The Little Guys

Cover of The Little GuysIn Leave Me Alone!, a 2017 Caldecott Honor book, Vera Brosgol gave us a grouchy grandma who just wants to be left TF alone. In The Little Guys, we meet a pack of admittedly adorable underdogs, working ably together to better themselves and all others within the group — but acting like a bunch of jerks in the process.

The arc of The Little Guys is so unexpected for a picture book — and so entertaining — that it merits a term paper or two (a Marxist reading? Feminist?). We start out rooting for the Little Guys (“Yes, we are small. But there are a lot of us. Together we are strong”), but it quickly becomes apparent who’s actually wielding the power — and how.

The first spread shows a pastoral, slightly cartoony forest, featuring tall, lush trees; a bear grownup and cub; an owl; some ducks and turtles in a pond, along with a little island with a lone sapling — not something you’d notice, necessarily, nor the teeny-tiny dots on that island. Those dots are the Little Guys, as the page design and text brilliantly guide the eyes to see (“Down here…”). Turn the page to zoom in on those pastel-colored, acorn hat-wearing, spindly limbed little dudes with red…noses? We are totally with them in spirit, and we have an excellent bird's-eye view as they venture from their island, using leaves as boats and sticks as oars, in search of breakfast. They get to land (yay!), holding hands (aww!), working together — but then a red bird flies warily away. And two startled chipmunks get dumped from inside their log. An owl’s nest is raided. Fox’s burrow is upended. And those bears just minding their business? “We can beat up the biggest animal we find! [in slightly bigger font] Don’t mess with the Little Guys!” Those bears weren’t, a fair-minded child might say, while the slapsticky pictures downplay (somewhat) the menacing words. The next page-turn (“None for you! All for us! Hand it over to the Little Guys!”), showing the marauders’ haul of their neighbors’ colorful eats (berries, veggies, mushrooms, fish) and the cowering forest creatures, alleviates any doubt in readers’ minds: these Little Guys are not the good guys (though, yes, they do redeem themselves by the end; the book’s not that transgressive).

Per the copyright page, Brosgol’s illustrations were “drawn with dip pen and acrylic ink and printed in watercolor, with some Adobe Photoshop shenanigans afterwards.” This book is all about the shenanigans — and the story works so beautifully because of the silly-but-thought-provoking tone Brosgol strikes. Her clean, varied visuals — expansive double-page spreads, occasional pace-setting panels, a very effective vertical book turn — keep us off-kilter, so we’re subliminally prepared for the shifting loyalties and twists-and-turns the story takes.

Whether the Caldecott committee chooses to honor a verdant-looking, cheekily humorous, cheerily menacing morality play with socio-political undertones — all of which can be read in those visually appealing and shenanigans-filled illustrations — is anyone’s guess. With her Caldecott Honor, Brosgol’s no underdog. But are her Little Guys?

Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. She holds an MA from the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons University and a BA from Oberlin College.

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Julie Danielson

Microbes! Brilliant. I love it.

Posted : Oct 29, 2019 03:35


Susan Dailey

I appreciated the details you pointed out, Elissa. The illustrations made me laugh out loud. I thought the use of varying font sizes was great, as was the variety of perspectives. The fact that the paper cover differs from the cloth cover was an added bonus.

Posted : Oct 26, 2019 01:45


Sara Glass

I actually thought The Little Guys were a perfect way to introduce the concept of microbes...and none of the 300+ students to whom I read it perceived it as promoting bullying, as one grandmotherly review on Amazon complained!

Posted : Oct 23, 2019 07:34


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