Thursday, July 26, 2012

Two Eggs, Please (2003), written by Sarah Weeks and illustrated by Betsy Lewin

Though they are universally well-intentioned, I must confess that I generally find "under the skin, we're really all the same" children's books kind of annoying.  Too often, I think, they approach the critically important but uncomfortably complex theme of difference in ways that are facile, painfully didactic, and sometimes awkwardly preachy.  No, we can't just hold hands and sing "Kumbaya."

Two Eggs, Please, however, is one book in this category that I never tire of reading, even though its  "different...but the same" refrain is a little simplistic, at least from an adult point of view.  This is a beautifully crafted, charming, and  humorous book that engages a "dual audience" in playful and creative ways (think of Sesame Street's parodies or of Mo Willem's Knuffle Bunny). 

Not that I would expect otherwise from a collaboration between Sarah Weeks and Betsy Lewin.  The prolific Weeks has written picture books (most famously the hilarious Mrs. McNosh series), early readers (most notably the Mac and Cheese series), three early chapter book series (Oggie Cooder, Guy, and Boyd), and several novels (including the award-winning So B. It).  Lewin, who has been awarded both Caldecott and Geisel honors, has a similarly long list of books to her credit and is best known for the Click Clack Moo picture books (with Doreen Cronin) and the Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa early readers (with Erica Silverman).

The premise of the book is that a parade of eccentric animal characters stroll, one by one, into an all-night NYC diner, each ordering "two eggs" but prepared differently (scrambled, over-easy, etc.)   There is no narrative voice or frame, and this proves a very effective strategy for avoiding a didactic tone.  Instead, most of the minimalist text is conveyed through word balloons and thought bubbles, with each character's speech presented in a font befitting his or her personality.  Lewin's palette of mostly primary colors conveys the brightness and energy of the New York nightworld.  Her trademark impressionistic watercolors and heavy black lines are playful, a touch surreal, and just the tiniest bit eerie, as a late-night diner experience ought to be.

Children will love the eclectic cast of characters, the "repetition with a difference," and the predictable refrain.  Adults will especially enjoy the "inside humor" typical of the best dual audience texts, jokes that escape most children, such as the obstetrician stork, the police officers who order their eggs "hard-boiled" and "soft-boiled," and the real-life waitress named Lupita, depicted here as a wolf. 

Incidentally, this is a great book for challenging the popular notion that picture books are primarily verbal stories "supplemented" by illustration.  Try first reading the text to someone without showing the images, and then ask what the story was about.  The second reading (of text and image together) will be that much richer and more delightful.

Miss E's Read: One of her favorite characters is a snake who orders his eggs raw and swallows them whole, as I suppose, snakes are wont to do.  The other is the crying gorilla baby whose desperate mother comes in for eggs on a hard roll---she especially likes the way that the other characters, through their facial expressions, respond to the baby.

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