Bad Books (and How I've Learned to Love Them)

Here’s a story: George the pig is polite, conscientious, and helpful. He’s almost perfect, really, except for one flaw that seems very piglike and not unusual at all: he eats too much. So when tempted by boxes of doughnuts his mother has baked for the “Pigtown Ladies’ Popcorn Festival and Bazaar,” he surrenders to desire. After eating ten…then eleven…then finally an even dozen doughnuts, he explodes. Just like that. Launched through a splintered hole in the roof of the “sunshine-yellow house with little white shutters.” In the illustrations, we see a rocking chair, a table — complete with gingham tablecloth — a woman’s hat with a ribbon, and a hail of doughnuts hurtling into the sky. No more George. Just like that.

In the book’s final pages we learn that his friends believe he has “changed into a blimp and sailed away.” His great-grandfather, “who was very old and very wise, and really should know about such things,” suggests with a smug grin that George “just plain...BURST!” (Wherein we see a huge doughnut splitting apart, looking like nothing less than a mushroom cloud.) And then there’s the page where dearly departed George ascends in flowing white robes, his halo a frosted doughnut.

While visiting New Orleans a few years back, my friend April Bedford showed me this very picture book: What Happened to George? by Betty ­Engebretson, illustrated by Ester Friend in 1947, then by Marge Opitz in 1958, and published by Rand McNally. Those who know April know that she knows children’s books. She teaches future teachers about looking at children’s books. She’s read thousands of picture books and has written about them for twenty years. Then why, when she was six, was the inexplicable What Happened to George? the book she wanted to read again and again?

I’d like to get something straight up front: What Happened to George? is a pretty bad book. April made that clear the day she gleefully handed it to me. It’s a disjointed thing that begins as one kind of story, then turns into another without finishing the first, expecting us to understand why the first part and the second part go together, and then finally failing to answer the most important question, which is right there in the title. Yet I have grown very fond of What Happened to George? for the same reason six-year-old April did. For the reason many children would: there is something good here, and that something is possibility.

Great picture books, such as The Carrot Seed or Sylvester and the Magic Pebble or Milo’s Hat Trick, are complete stories. They invite the child in, take them for a walk, and end up somewhere that makes them laugh or think or cry — or all of the above. Good books tell stories that look out into the world.

And then there are the bad books, which come in two distinct varieties of bad. The first category of bad book, the books to avoid, are too complete. In fact, they are hermetically sealed. You know these books. All is told and explained, typically by wise adults who simply know better. In these books the child is often just an ignorant adult — only shorter and sometimes wearing a sailor suit.

The other species of bad book, the ones that mean something to the child, work because they are incomplete. Children don’t just read books, they inhabit them. An incomplete book is an open door into another place, a land waiting to be tilled and planted. To a child — ­uninfluenced by nostalgia and with little experience in the world — these books, with their strange bits and improbable turns, begin something. George’s adventure may lead nowhere, but it leaves the door open so the reader can find their own way.

When I was seven years old, I had a toy mouse named Peter. Peter was three inches of gray fur with a red pin for a nose and two pipe-cleaner paws that clutched a real kernel of corn. I loved that mouse. Then, one day, I lost Peter. For weeks afterward I searched for him, everywhere I had been, every place I could think of within my limited world. In time, as the grief and distress softened, the search for Peter somehow turned into play. I enlisted G.I. Joe to lead the hunt. I deployed toy jets, plastic boats, and even a rocket ship called Fireball XL5 to look beyond the solar system. I made drawings and maps charting my strategy. My entire play-life mobilized in this one great quest. I never did find Peter, but while looking I created stories that made a world.

A few years after my search for Peter, I sat on the grassy slope of my front lawn looking out at the house across the street. Suddenly, a black cat ran behind the house, and a moment later, from the other side, a crow flew squawking into the sky. I knew better, but to my young mind the running cat, through some enchantment, had become the flying crow.

The imagination doesn’t require much — a sudden brightening under a dark doorway, a curl of smoke on the horizon, a nudge down a snowy hill, or a pig’s craving for doughnuts. Children need only a place to start: books that are complete and ones that are not. We need good books to learn how the world works. Books that teach us to have faith, that despite what some might say, the carrot will grow — and grow beyond expectation. But we also need books that don’t have answers: the rebellious, the eccentric, the peculiar fragments that begin our own stories. These are books that children inhabit and remake into new worlds. Even in bad books, something becomes a beginning. An exploding pig can lead to great things.

From the November/December 2021 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Eric Rohmann

Eric Rohmann won the 2003 Caldecott Medal for My Friend Rabbit (Roaring Brook) and a 1995 Honor for Time Flies (Crown). Honeybee (Porter/Holiday), written by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Rohmann, won the 2021 Sibert Medal; their book Giant Squid (Porter/Roaring Brook) was a 2017 Sibert honoree.

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