My Favorite Book of the Year (Holiday Gift Guide 2014 Kicks Off)
November 20, 2014 § Leave a comment
First, a word about this year’s gift guide. I’m aiming for an unprecedented six installments between now and Christmas! Most posts will feature 2-3 books, and I will be covering picture books for a range of ages (fiction and non-fiction), as well as middle-grade chapter books for ages 9-12. My criteria: the books have to be new in 2014; they have to be things I haven’t posted about prior to now (yes, I’ve been holding out on you); and they have to warrant owning for a certain “specialness,” for the potential to be enjoyed again and again. I think you will be happy. I can scarcely contain my excitement. (If you input your email address on the right side of my homepage, you’ll be officially subscribed, and you’ll be guaranteed to get new posts delivered to your inbox, instead of putting your eggs in the fickle basket of social media.)
For today’s kick-off, I’m going out on a limb and telling you that I cannot imagine a single person on your holiday list who would not love to receive Bob Shea and Lane Smith’s latest picture book, Kid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads (best for ages 4-10). Our family is so utterly and completely obsessed with it—and has been since June, when I brought home an advance copy from a conference—that, not only do we have the entire thing memorized, but we have taken to quoting it around the dinner table to crack ourselves up. Scout’s honor. Find me something more fun than reading this book aloud. You cannot.
Kid Sheriff, a collaboration by two of the funniest men in the biz, combines the over-the-top absurdity of a Western yarn with the deadpan seriousness of a child’s logic. The end result is pages of layered and spectacular off-beat humor. (Oh, to be a fly on the wall when Shea and Smith come up with this stuff!) It’s the ultimate boy-outsmarts-adults story.
Drywater Gulch had a toad problem.
Not the hop-down-your-
britches kind of toad.
Not the croaking-all-night
kind of toad.
outlaw kind of toad.
Why those Toad brothers
would steal your gold, kiss
your cattle, and insult your
chili. Hootin’, hollerin’, and
cussin’ all the while.
Then hope rode into town.
On a tortoise.
Give him a minute.
The new sheriff turns out to be a boy and, at first pass, the most unlikely solution to the town’s bandit problem. “Can you handle a shooting iron?” asks the Mayor. “Nope,” the boy responds. Nor, the interview reveals, can he “ride a horse,” “do rope tricks,” or “stay up past eight.” Instead, what qualifies this boy as a sheriff is, in his words, “I know a really lot about dinosaurs.”
What do dinosaurs have to do with putting criminals in jail? Just wait. It’s pure brilliance.
With complete confidence and without cracking a smile, our young sheriff navigates the evidence left in the wake of the Toads’ many crimes (a hole blasted through the wall of the bank, a tied up stagecoach driver, etc.) and concludes that this is actually the work of various dinosaur species. (“Velociraptors. Whole mess a them. Confused your stagecoach with a lumbering Protoceratops, I reckon. Honest mistake.” “Wow, you’re good,” said the Mayor.) Of course, we as readers are not so naive as the Mayor and his people. Neither, as it turns out, is the boy.
When our own children act out—wailing in the supermarket over a box of cereal, staging a protest on the sidewalk by refusing to walk another step—what do parenting experts tell us is the most effective form of discipline? Ignoring them. Because bad attention is still attention. Similarly, when the Toads discover that a child paleontologist is persuading the entire town that dinosaurs are the real culprits behind the hootin’ and hollerin’, they are suddenly more than happy to confess to the crimes. The Toads actually beg to be locked up in place of the alleged dinosaurs. (“‘What? That ain’t right. We done robbed those!” said the big mean Toad…I want what’s comin’ to me…OUTTA MY WAY!’”)
This is when I tell you, in full disclosure, that it wasn’t love at first sight for me with Kid Sheriff. Sure, I liked it immediately. But it has been over time that I have become really, really enthralled with it—and here’s why. This is a book that demands to be read aloud for full effect (if you like to do voices, and if you can do a good drawl, you’re in for a treat); but it takes several readings to get the timing and cadence just right. It also takes multiple readings for kids to digest the wildly exaggerated turns of phrases and to access the irony beneath the surface entertainment.
But isn’t this exactly what we look for in a picture book? In every book they create, Bob Shea and Lane Smith never talk down to the child reader. They are masters at showing without telling, at liberally drawing on complex vocabulary, and at making the child work for payoff. Even Smith’s unique angular, two-dimensional, sepia-toned art—at once silly and somber—is rich with subtle jokes and invites repeated study.
Ultimately, to fall in love with this book, I had to hear it through voices other than my own. I had to watch my children’s grandfather stop several times mid-read, because he was laughing so hard—and the kids immediately filling in the next line for him. I had to hear my four-year-old daughter re-enacting long stretches of the dialogue, while playing in the next room with her dolls. It gets under your skin, this book. Like that wine you’ve been waiting all year to drink, it gets better and better. Make room for this book in your Holiday Shopping. You won’t be sorry.
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