by David McPhail
This book evinced a mixed reaction in me: I was at once awed by the profound message and confused by the presentation.
I did not intend to read it to the recently-turned-4-yo but he ended up skimming through it and showing interest anyway that I did 'interpret' the book for him. Since both the 4 year old and the 7 year old manged to get the core message out of it, I wanted to share it here.
Worldess picture books are amazing when well done, especially when it is an allegory. The illustrations in this book are evocative: the full-page panel focuses our eyes on exactly what the author intends for us to see and infer. The muted warm colors and clothes evoke emotions we associate with the bygone era.
It is interesting to read that most illustrator-authors illustrate to satisfy their creative urges and not with a target audience in mind. David McPhail shares in this interview, that not only is pen and ink his medium of choice, he also prefers to illustrate for himself first and it is incidental if others like it as well and want to buy his book.
A little boy writes a letter, meticulously puts it in an envelope, affixes the postage stamp and puts on his coat to walk through a seeming war zone to drop it in a mailbox.
On the way, he sees bombers in the sky targeting a patch of land, a huge tank blowing something up in an alley he has just passed, soldiers marching by breaking down a door while kids stare out a window curiously... the story progresses on in this vein where the boy sees atrocities on his walk to the mail box, some of which can seem incomprehensible and confusing to kids (especially the one where a man is vandalizing a public poster of the president).
And at the mail box, the boy is confronted by a bully, but he takes a stand and yells "No!", the only word used thrice in this book. "No?" wonders the bully. "No!" states the boy firmly. Then, mails his letter and trudges back unharmed.
All dismal so far and I was debating letting the kids read this book when I skimmed it first. But then, the story takes a turn.
As the boy walks back, he notices the soldiers handing out presents to the kids (why they had to break down the door in the first place is a natural question kids asked), the tank helps flatten and plow the field that the bomber targeted earlier, and a bomber airplane now drops a bike on a parachute for the kids - which the bully and the boy receive, with the bully giving the boy a ride back home on this new bike.
And, what was in that letter that the boy wrote?
At my school we have RULES.
Do you have any RULES?
The idea of taking a stand to effect a change, refusing to be bullied or treated unfairly comes across loud and clear in this book, even though the second half of the book might cause some confusion in the young minds in the context of how the events unfolded in the first half.
I remember feeling apprehensive about reading How I Learned Geography by Uri Shulevitz to Ana a couple of years ago. The illustrations and the gentle message won over and the book graces our home bookshelf garnering repeat reads when we are in the mood. Unfortunately, No! did not win us over that way.
Understandably, the 7-yo got more out of No! than the 4-yo who took it literally as he doesn't comprehend war or bullying. But, something about the wordless picture book and the correlation between bizarre events at the beginning making more sense in the second half appealed to the 4-yo who did read the book to himself a few times despite my disinterest.
[sample pages here: http://us.macmillan.com/no/DavidMcPhail]
[image source: us.macmillan.com]