Picture Book Review:
When Mama has a very bad (and rather scaly) day . . .

h1 February 24th, 2007 by jules

Pija Lindenbaum’s When Owen’s Mom Breathed Fire (published in September ’06 by R&S Books; translated by Elisabeth Kallick Dyssegaard; my source: library copy) is what Kirkus Reviews aptly called a “shrewd fable” about . . . well, about one mother’s very bad day (or two) and a young child’s ability to cope with it. And it’s not only shrewd; it’s a wonderfully weird and peculiar and odd {can you tell I’m trying to avoid using the cliché-ridden “quirky”?} Swedish import.

In the book’s opening spread, we meet Owen — sitting at the breakfast table and hiding under a huge dragon head costume piece — and his mother, Bea, who “in the morning . . . goes completely crazy.” She’s a wicked talented multi-tasker for sure — she’s on the phone, drinking coffee, brushing her teeth, and blow-drying her hair all at once. Oh and she’s going berserk and snapping at Owen in the process. Off they run to daycare.

But the next day, “something very strange happens. Owen gets up before Mom. But when he goes to nudge her, he discovers that she has turned into some sort of dragon.” Mom — now a scaly, pink, hairless dragon, complete with the two little bumps for breasts that Lindenbaum gave the mother version — has forgotten how to make breakfast; can’t remember what she does at work; and doesn’t remember where the milk and cornflakes go (the hall closet and toilet seat will do just fine, though, she decides). At first, Owen takes full advantage of this — “‘{w}e’ll have toast with chocolate powder on it, and chocolate milk. And cornflakes with chocolate milk!’ ‘Hmm,’ says Mom. ‘Is that what we usually have?’ ‘Yep,’ says Owen. ‘Every day.'” But then he begins to worry a bit as she falls asleep right on top of the covers; he figures something is wrong and she’ll have to go to the hospital.

And thus begins their strange, adventurous day. Mom the Dragon stomps on her cell phone (“‘I don’t like the way it rings all the time,’ she complains”); on a quick trip to the zoo, she is mistaken for a crocodile by a zoo worker as he attempts to seize her; at the playground, Mom the Dragon blows sand on the tough kids, thus scaring everyone there; and she eats beetles and breathes fire on folks. She eventually makes it to the money-grubbing doc who annoys her enough (the doc is a spectacular failure at assisting Owen’s mom in any way whatsoever) for her to thump her dragon tail loudly and angrily on the floor and scare some sense into the doctor, who then sends her on her merry — if not scaly — way, free of charge.

It’s Owen’s calm, groovy, peace-sign-earrings-wearin’ Grandma who tells him it will all be okay:

. . . she looks at Mom.

“She was like this when we woke up this morning,” says Owen.

“It’ll probably wear off in a few days,” Grandma says, and brings out tea and curry.

The next morning when Owen wakes, his mother is already up and at ’em, but this morning she takes off work to spend the day with Owen, not to mention that she’s back to being “his usual mom.”

How freaky and wonderful is this? Mix in Lindenbaum’s droll and playful watercolors with her oddball characters, and you’ve got a winner. Come to think of it, I take back “freaky.” It’s all completely normal and ho hum if you’re a parent. Hectic mamas and papas everywhere will be chuckling, and children . . . well, my almost-three-year-old cannot. hear. this. one. enough. I dare say it’s a magnetic tale to a child (often I even see her sitting there, perusing the illustrations yet one more time without my narration), as it’s told entirely from the point-of-view of a child. And how often do they try to block us out when we’re acting insane, flustered, entirely too unsettled and downright frenzied? My daughter might not have a dragon head costume piece, but I suppose she has her own coping mechanisms.

What this odd, little tale lacks is a tidy ending. In fact, it lacks a resolution altogether. Abrupt, indeed. But, listen . . . I currently don’t send my children to any sort of daycare; I can do my job without leaving my home; and I refuse to own an annoying cell phone (at least I’m holding out as long as I can). I make every effort to be the anti-Owen’s mom, and I still get this harried in front of them. And that’s because I’m human (save for the days I’m a dragon). Children know this. No tidy, pat ending necessary, I dare say. They get it. They can supply. And it’s really no more simple (and, uh, complicated) than just a Really Bad Day, seen through the lens of a young, imaginative child. I, for one, applaud the absence of an ABC-After-School-Special ending in this engaging and eccentric story.

So, here’s to dragon days (and putting the cornflakes on the toilet seat, for that matter). And — tidy resolution or no — here’s to Lindenbaum and her ability to capture a child’s sense of imaginative play and shrewd, savvy, necessary coping skills as well.

4 comments to “Picture Book Review:
When Mama has a very bad (and rather scaly) day . . .”

  1. Ooh! I must get my hands on a copy of this one!
    I cannot get enough well-done books about realist (er… I mean dysfunctional) family dynamics.

    I’m still looking for a copy of “My Mother is Weird”:

    which I always passed up back in the days when book aesthetics trumped the dysfunctional message and now is out of print.

    Life is so much scarier if you think you’re the only one who lives with “human” parents.

    Thanks for highlighting this book. Can’t wait..

  2. Thanks, Andrea . . . I’ll be interested to know what you think. It’s probably not for everyone, but I liked it. Let me know what you think if you get your hands on it.

  3. […] Owen’s Mom Breathed Fire by Pija Lindenbaum, an award-winning author/illustrator from Sweden? (I reviewed this title last year at 7-Imp.) It’s another tale of child-abandonment-for-a-day. Sorta. It’s about a […]

  4. I love Pija Lindenbaum. And it just goes to show you about cultural differences – I don’t think Swedes find her books particularly weird at all. Funny, yes. Weird, no. And her Bridget series is hugely popular here in Sweden. My favorite though is her tale about jealousy involving a little girl, her favorite uncle and his new boyfriend, whom she loathes – Mini Mia and her Darling Uncle. Highly recommended.

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