Monday, April 11, 2011

It's a Book, by Lane Smith (2010)

It's a BookI chose Lane Smith's It's a Book to read and blog about tonight in honor of National Library Week (April 10-16, 2011).  Certainly, it's a book that above all else celebrates the joy of being absorbed in a book---even and perhaps especially in an era dominated by electronic media.  And it explicitly points readers to libraries---not bookstores---as the place where we go to obtain books.  However, this is also, I think, a fitting book for honoring librarians because of the critical role that they (and the American Library Association) play in defending intellectual freedom.  For while this book has not yet made the list of Frequently Challenged Books, it undoubtedly will soon, especially if incidents like these are any indication.

It's a Book is not a book with which all parents will be comfortable.  [Spoiler Alert!!]  Its cast of characters include a mouse, a monkey, and a (literal) jackass, the last of whom is the subject of the book's final punchline.  So if you're not comfortable saying "jackass" aloud at the end, this is probably not a book you'll enjoy sharing with your young companion/s.  (But please, please don't deprive other library users from the chance to make that decision for themselves.)

Smith, who has illustrated nearly 30 children's books (many of which he also authored) is no stranger to controversy or book banning.  His most frequent collaborator is Jon Scieszka, with whom he produced The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (1992); he also illustrated Eve Merriam's Halloween ABC and Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach.  His signature style, much like Scieszka's, is always irreverent.

Like Stinky Cheese Man and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs (1989), which he also created with Scieszka, It's a Book is a metafictive comedy about reading---and the very future of the book.  A jackass, working busily on his laptop, questions a monkey about the strange "device" in his hands, wondering why it doesn't need a password and whether it can tweet.  When he borrows the monkey's book and finds himself absorbed in its story for hours, he finally seems to understand...or maybe not.

The School Library Journal recommends this book for grades 3-5, readers older than the traditional picture book crowd to whom it is marketed.  Indeed, both critics and fans have commented on this book's crossover appeal.  As with the Mo Willems books I've discussed in previous posts, there are jokes that only older readers will understand, like the part where the jackass "translates" a page from Treasure Island into text-speak.  There are some technological terms that a five-year-old may not know, like "wi-fi," and the concept is rather sophisticated---I've used it with college students to talk about metafiction and postmodernism.  

Ultimately, though, Miss E has always enjoyed reading this book with me.  The dialogue between the two characters (distinguished by different font styles and colors)---and the repetitious quality of the monkey's responses---enables her to "read" the monkey's part, while I play (hahahaha!) the jackass.  The ideas that the jackass doesn't know what a book is---and doesn't seem to be listening to anything the monkey says--- both strike her as hilarious.  And Smith's deceptively simply drawings of the two animals, whose changing facial expressions essentially retell the story in images, elicit gales of laughter every time.

Bonus:  Smith discusses It's a Book at length on his blog.  And the Amazon catalog reproduces (legally) about 25% of the book's pages and offers several related videos.

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