Teenie, Cute, and Small

h1 September 2nd, 2006 by eisha

… and no, I’m not talking about myself, cheeky. But I admit that each of these books struck a personal chord with me. I was always the shortest girl in my class, and as such I think I got an extra serving of the sort of pawing and cooing and manhandling that little kids tend to get from bigger people. Even from other kids my age, who seemed to think it was neat that they could pick me up as easily as their baby siblings. Well, almost as easily – I called a halt to it around 4th grade after being dropped on the four-square court one too many times.

The point is, it’s not easy being small. You’re always having to ask for someone’s help to reach something, or to carry stuff. And no one takes you seriously. These books speak to that aspect of childhood, and find something to celebrate in smallness.

Just TeenieJustine, the heroine of Susan Meddaugh’s latest picture book, is so small that “everyone called her just Teenie.” As she so perfectly describes it: “Nothing fits… Clothes don’t fit. My house doesn’t fit… The whole world doesn’t fit!” She tells a carnival fortune-teller/wish-granter that she wants to grow, and is given a box that contains… a plant. Initially she’s disappointed, of course, but watches with amazement as it grows to magic-beanstalk-proportions. She’s swept up to the top by a frisky tendril, and spends a glorious summer on her own (everyone else is too big to climb it), rescuing kittens from treetops and reveling in how small everyone else looks.

Just Teenie is classic Meddaugh, with her friendly cartoon-style illustrations and off-beat humor. With very few words it encapsulates the frustration of being small, and provides a bit of escapist fantasy for those who can’t wait to grow bigger.

I'm Not Cute!With a cover like this, and a title like “I’m Not Cute!” Jonathan Allen sets up the conflict without anyone even needing to open the book. Because, clearly, Baby Owl is very, very cute. And when he decides to explore the woods, every animal he meets just has to pick him up, hug him, and tell him how cute he is. Each time Baby Owl gets angrier and angrier, insisting that he is “a huge and scary hunting machine.” When a comment about his “big baby eyes” finally provokes a tantrum that would do any two-year-old proud, along comes Mama to make it better with a hug, a nap, and validation that he is a “huge, scary, sleek, sharp-eyed hunting machine,” but also the reassurance that he is still her cute Baby Owl.

I can’t imagine a truer depiction of the cuteness dilemma faced by so many small ones. The text is hilarious, and builds on a simple repetition that begs to be read aloud. Allen perfectly conveys Baby Owl’s frustration at being cuddled and cooed-over with a few well-placed strokes of black around those big baby eyes; and while everyone else has a solid black outline to give shape to their watercolor-ish bodies, Baby Owl is basically eyeballs, beak and feet sticking out of a downy ball of fluff. I just really want to cuddle him, even as I totally respect his need for dignity and recognition as a human being er, I mean a human-like owl being. Not since Mo Willem’s Pigeon have I seen a better anthropomorphized-animal version of a toddler.

When You Were SmallWhen You Were Small by Sara O’Leary is a bit different from the previous two. It starts out with a standard picture book premise: Henry always asks his father the same question at bedtime: “Tell me about when I was small.” But, rather than the expected description of a typical babyhood, the reader is then treated to a series of (ahem, pardon me) tall-tale one-liners about a 3-inch-tall mini-boy. My favorite: “When you were small your mother once lost you in the bottom of her purse. When she found you again, you were clinging to an earring she’d lost three years before.” The deadpan text is perfectly countered by sweetly whimsical illustrations by Julie Morstad, in a crosshatching-and-watercolor style that’s kind of like a non-sardonic Edward Gorey. There’s a lot of appeal here: pure silliness that will certainly invoke belly-laughs when read aloud, plus there’s the Borrowers/Littles/etc. phenomenon – that fascination with characters that are so small they can use ordinary objects in completely unintended ways. For example, Henry uses a ruler for a toboggan and his father’s slipper for a bed. And there’s a curious validation in that, too, I think – even the impossibly-small can manage in a too-big world, and Henry always looks like he’s having a pretty good time.

I discovered When You Were Small by in a very roundabout way – I was trying to find out more about Julie Morstad after (thanks to Julie!) I saw the animated “Maybe Sparrow” video (hauntingly lovely) and the Fox Confessor Brings the Flood CD cover art (spooky, surreal) she created for Neko Case. Sadly, when I tried to get a copy for my library, I was told that the publisher is “out of stock indefinitely.” So, if you run across this one in a bookstore or something, grab it! You may not get another chance!

7 comments to “Teenie, Cute, and Small”

  1. I’m proud, then, to count myself among your friends who never tried to pick you up and drop you some place.

    Good list — made me think of “I’m Small and Other Verses” by Lilian Moore (ill. by Jill McElmurry)….Moore makes it look easy to write poetry for children, which, of course, it isn’t. Not all the poems are about being small, but it’s a good collection.

    And, oh, that Neko Case CD — STILL listening to it. Miriam can sing the lyrics on most songs. I think it’s time to put it away for a while, but it’s sooooo good. But I digress . . . I’m eager now to try to find a Morstad book!

  2. yes, actually, i believe that’s the key to our lasting friendship.

    thanks for the book rec! i was focusing on 2006 titles on this list, but could also have included a couple of classics: “I Like To Be Little” by Charlotte Zolotow and Erik Blegvad, “The Shrinking of Treehorn” by Florence Parry Heide and Edward Gorey (hmm, his name is coming up a lot in this post), and “The Story of Imelda, Who Was Small” by Morris Lurie and Terry Denton.

    Neko Case is awesome, and I cannot thank you enough for telling me about her. She is so spooky-cool. good music for long drives at night. esp. in a convertible. and esp. if you happen to be Thelma and Louise.

  3. oh, cool. i had assumed that morstad’s was older. now i really wanna see it even more.

    neko case is, in my humble opinion, one of those artists whose music — as in, lyrics just standing alone by themselves, that is — could be contemporary poetry. case in point: “Margaret Vs. Pauline” . . . well-written stuff.

  4. “When You Were Small” does have kind of a retro feel – reminds me of the Sendak/Krauss collaborations as much as Gorey.

  5. Oh! I want all three! (especially “I’m Not Cute”– it’s just so cute…) Thanks for sharing these titles. What a great idea.

  6. http://w-y-w-s.blogspot.com

  7. Just wanted to say thanks for your lovely comments on the book. Julie’s work is fantastic and I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to collaborate with her. She’s now working on drawings for a second book about Henry. And “When You Were Small” has gone into a second edition so there will be copies available soon. Tell your library!
    Best wishes & congrats on a great site.

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