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Changing the World, One Marker at a Time

Here is our latest fabulous Friday book installment from Susan Fry…

One of the most frustrating things about life in the internet age is that things change so quickly. And by “things,” I mean web pages. Overnight, they get redesigned, revamped, or disappear entirely. No wonder I find books so comforting. Once something’s down on paper, it’s permanent. Right?

Sigh. Deep down, I know that editions update, science upgrades, and series I love get cancelled after the second book. These changes are unsettling. They force me to realize that the whole world is really and truly out of my control.

Imagine how much scarier that feeling must be for a child.

Maybe that’s one reason I like the following books, modern renditions of Harold and the Purple Crayon. They take a playful approach to the relationship between the “real world” and the world of the imagination. In these books, children use pens, markers, and chalk to actually change their worlds. But while these new realities at first seem exciting, they often spiral out of control. The kids have to get crafty to contain their own creations.

Just imagine – pictures about creating reality out of pictures. Magritte would have loved them.

Chalk, by Bill Thomson. Three children in a park on a rainy day find a bag filled with deceptively innocuous sidewalk chalk. But when one girl draws a sun, the actual sun appears and the rain vanishes. The second child gleefully draws pretty butterflies that emerge from the asphalt. And then — the third child draws a T-Rex. As it looms over them, teeth snapping, the children hide in the covered slide, where the quick-thinking T-Rex creator draws a rainstorm. As the drops wash away the chalk, the T-Rex melts, too. Thomson’s art (and the complete absence of words) makes the children’s dilemma feel real. He has a slightly-unnerving technique of using unusual angles – ground level, super-close up, bird’s eye – to make you feel that you’re actually part of the picture. His paintings are also hyper-real, with textures and shadows you want to touch.

Purple, Green and Yellow, by Robert Munsch, illustrated by Helene Desputeaux. Brigid finally persuades her mother to buy her the “SUPER-INDELIBLE-NEVER-COME-OFF-TILL-YOU’RE-DEAD-AND-MAYBE-EVEN-LATER” markers, promising that she’ll never use them on herself. As you guessed, that promise doesn’t last long. Soon, Brigid is decorated in all different colors. Her efforts to get the marker off involve water, invisibility, and re-coloring herself until she actually looks “perfect. Even better than before.” Slightly older children will soon have the name of the markers memorized and ask for them incessantly at the store.

Jeremy Draws a Monster, by Peter McCarty. Jeremy “had his very own room. He never left. He never went outside.” Instead, Jeremy watches all alone from his window as the neighborhood children play. Then, one day, Jeremy uses his “fancy pen” to draw a monster. The large purple beast proves more annoying than frightening. Jeremy soon gets tired of the monster’s demands – “Draw me a sandwich! I’m hungry! . . . . Draw me a hat! I’m going out!” So he draws a bus ticket and escorts the beast out of town. As soon as the monster departs, the other kids invite Jeremy to play. It’s tempting to see the monster as Jeremy’s “bad” traits, or even fears, as both child and monster sport a similar number “3” on the front of their shirts.

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications.

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