I imagine that it must be the nicest thing in the world to have a collaborator with whom you've worked for twenty odd years or so. How comforting that must be. The pairing of author Cynthia Rylant and illustrator Diane Goode began long long ago when they first worked together to create When I Was Young in the Mountains. Badda bing, it wins a Caldecott Honor and the rest is history. I wasn't aware that the two were still doing any shared projects, and then this lovely little book arrived on my desk. "Alligator Boy" is a small simple picture book that goes against expectations beautifully. If you happen to be in desperate need of a book that will delight your small children, boys and girls alike, but that falls on the understated side of the equation, I cannot recommend this story enough. Charming, charming, charming.
After taking a trip to a museum and seeing a life-sized stuffed alligator in all its reptilian glory, a young boy decides that becoming an alligator is his life's goal. His aunt, who hears this wish over the phone, is happy to help the kid live his dream and sends him an easily worn alligator head and tail. Though his father is fine with the change, his mother worries about his health and a vet (the doctor wouldn't come) is quickly dispatched. But as it turns out, there's nothing wrong with the little alligator, so it's off to school he goes. And wouldn't you know it but it's the best thing that's ever happened to him. Now he can do everything the other kids can, but he's also adept at scaring away the school bully and rescuing dogs from dogcatchers. The last image in the book is of the little alligator, tuckered out at the end of a long day, sitting sleepily and happily on his loving mother's lap.
Now when I read this story I full expected the boy to tire of his gatorial garb at some point in the proceedings so as to learn a rote lesson. Perhaps he'd find that people didn't trust him as much or that he scared kittens. Then he'd go back to being a boy and we'd get some twist ending where he starts wearing a panda outfit on the last page. This is the standard procedure that a whole heckuva lot of picture books follow, and it's deathly deadly dull. How much more interesting then to find that the boy wants to be an alligator, becomes one, and is then accepted by friends and family alike. The last image in this book is of the boy snuggled contentedly on his mother's lap, seemingly without a care in the world. Now, I don't like to read too much into a book, but this is a picture book that's going to speak to a lot of people on a lot of different levels. For anyone who has ever felt that they were born in the wrong body and want to change their appearance drastically, this is the perfect gift of a book. This title also struck me as a subtle (and better illustrated) follow-up to Charlotte Zolotow's, William's Doll. Basically, it's about accepting someone for being what they want to be. Yet unlike those didactic children's stories out there, this tale is sweet enough that the message (if indeed there is one at all) goes down so smoothly you won't even realize you've learned it until a great deal of time has passed. Kudos to Ms. Rylant then for her good taste.
Of course, equal consideration/congrats/rose petals should be thrown at Ms. Diane Goode. Over the years Ms. Goode has pared down her style to its essential elements. In this story you've picture created with line on paper alongside watercolors and gouache. The color palette is a comfortable series of greens, blues, and serene (though certainly NOT pastel) shades and tones. As for the characters themselves, Goode places them in an abundant amount of white space. She knows how to show them off. To let them stand and pose and prance about without cluttering up the images. Yet for all this simplicity, she also conveys some very tender and dear emotions. Cleverly, the alligator head is able to show the emotions of the boy inside of it. And aside from his human hands and legs, you might begin to believe (as the kid himself undoubtedly does) that he really is an alligator incarnate. Now Ms. Goode chose to set this story in a time that never existed, which is rather interesting to look at. By the clothing, you might think that this story took place in the early 20th century (maybe the 30s). Heck, the bully in the book (who proves easy enough to frighten) wears a soft cabbie hat and blue suit. All the boys are in short pants, all the girls are in dresses, and the teacher is prone to a bow tie or two when he feels the yen. On the flip side, this is a fully multicultural books. The vet is black, the schoolmates are all sorts of ethnicities, and there's even a girl in a wheelchair in one of the scenes. So while this is a time and place in world history that probably never happened, you'll come to wish that it had.
Ah, but I did have one objection to this book and I'm afraid it deals with the choice to make this a rhyming text. It's always a dangerous decision on any author's part. Now by and large and for the most part Rylant does very well by her words. "His days were quite happy, his days were a joy . . . / What a good green life for an alligator boy." That's all well and good. Unfortunately, there are times when the rhymes don't scan. "He found his dear dad and told him the story / of being a lizard, no longer a boy." Now insofar as I can tell, that's supposed to rhyme. The entire book is ABABAB. Um... this line doesn't. Also there is the brief moment of awkwardness here and there. "She asked a good doctor to come and to see / this boy who could not a boy now be." Doesn't scan all that well and it's doggone difficult to say properly aloud.
Quibbles aside, I have a very special place in my heart for this book. Really, it belongs in the same camp as Imogene's Antlers by David Small. By sheer coincidence, it also is coming out in the same year as Emily Jenkins', Daffodil, Crocodile, about a little girl who dresses up in a crocodile head to distinguish herself from her sisters. But where "Daffodil, Crocodile" is madcap and crazed, "Alligator Boy" is small and quiet and supremely sublime. A fantastic book for one-on-one sharing and a great story for any kid who has ever wished to take their dressing up to an entirely different level.