September’s Birthday Pick (with Permission to Go a Little Wild)

September 18, 2013 § 2 Comments

Mr. Tiger Goes WildThe routines of back to school are upon us. I am slowly adjusting to weekday mornings without the kids (meaning that I’m nearly home from drop off before I realize that I’m still humming along to the Music Together CD in the car; before I realize, Wait. I don’t have to listen to this. Wait! I can listen to anything I want!). But at the same time that I’m shedding a little responsibility, my children are being asked to assume more. They have traded the creative liberty of summer dressing (JP pairing bright green shirts with bright green shorts) for the navy and khaki of school uniforms. Our leisurely mornings of PJs and drawn-out breakfasts have been traded for early wake up calls and a litany of come on, let’s move along, did you pack your lunch bag, please take off that cape, why on earth are you getting out the play dough, for crying out loud hurry up (yes, I have read the articles about how we’re ruining our children by saying “hurry up” all the time, and I’ve made a mental note to work on that in my next life). Did my sweaty, grass-stained, tattoo-encrusted kids ever get a proper scrubbing this summer (assuming you don’t count the communal shower at the pool)? The memory of them chasing fireflies late one night in our backyard with nets in their hands and tutus on their heads is how I hope I’ll remember them always.

Which is why Peter Brown’s Mr. Tiger Goes Wild (Ages 3-7) couldn’t come at a better time—just the permission my children need to hold on to a bit of their wildness amidst the rules and routines of the school year. This book is pure brilliance. Last fall, Brown gave us the delicious illustrations of Creepy Carrots, whose digital stylization and compelling use of accent color carries through into Mr. Tiger Goes Wild. But here, because Brown has written the story as well, there is not an inch of the book that doesn’t bear his mark, from the heavy stock paper to the mesmerizing endpapers to the surprising discovery my kids made when they took off the book’s jacket cover. I dare you to put this book in a child’s hands and not feel convinced that physical books will never be replaced by e-readers. I heart Peter Brown.

One of the marks of a great picture book is when the text and the illustration add up to a sum greater than their parts—when children have to engage with both elements to grasp the full meaning. This means that some of the most impacting picture books for kids have the fewest words (Paul Zelinsky’s Z is for Moose from a previous post is another great example of this). Mr. Tiger Goes Wild begins simply enough: “Everyone was perfectly fine with the way things were. Everyone but Mr. Tiger.” A close look at the double page spread reveals that Mr. Tiger is not simply disgruntled but ready to blow. In addition to being the only animal pictured in color (a fiery orange), he is the only one with open eyes (a piercing green that stares directly at us); all the others look as if they are sleepwalking through their day, unemotional and dressed identically in drab Victorian attire.

When Mr. Tiger gets his first “wild idea,” what he does and how he feels is also principally revealed through illustration (dropping onto all fours, chasing butterflies, unleashing his ROAR, and ultimately shedding his clothes and fleeing to the country). As the book begins its transformation from the industrial tones of browns and blacks to the lush greens and blues of the countryside, all would seem to be hunky dory. But now the text comes back to tell us otherwise: “Mr. Tiger was lonely. He missed his friends. He missed his city. He missed his home.” But how to return to daily life while preserving this new self-expression?

My children's favorite spread, where Tiger literally changes his (and our perspective) as--we realize in the next page--he lowers himself onto all fours.

My children’s favorite spread, where Tiger literally changes his (and our perspective) as–we realize in the next page–he lowers himself onto all fours.

One of my favorite things about fall is watching my children transform from tame to wild on the playground after school. Along with their friends, they tear back and forth on their scooters and their bikes, climb up the slides, create clouds in the dirt with their once-shiny school shoes, and relish in the sound of their “outside voices” (well, that would be mostly my son). This is their time, much like Mr. Tiger, who returns to town in a Hawaiian print shirt to find that “things are beginning to change.” His friends and family are learning what mine are realizing as well: that there’s a time for formal wear and upright postures, and then there’s a time for bare feet and running on all fours. We welcome the structure of fall, but only when we’re allowed to unleash our inner wildness each afternoon can we find our way back there the next morning.

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