Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Pictures tell a thousand words in 'The Boys'

And now for something completely different. Today I'm straying from my usual fare and dipping into the realm of children's books. Hat tip to Tim Morris for today's selection. Tim is the editor of Guide to Baseball Fiction and Professor and Associate Chair for Graduate Studies in the English Department at the University of Texas at Arlington. He's one of the most prolific readers I know, and when I asked him a few weeks back for his favorite new baseball titles, he named The Boys, by Jeff Newman. I ordered it for my son and enjoyed it quite well, even if he was too young to do much more than try to chew on the cover.

There's something magical about a story told entirely in pictures. Here a child's (or adult's) imagination is free to interpret the tale as no one else would. It's the flip side of the beauty of reading, where each reader's mind draws up unique characters and locales. In the "reading" of a picture book, each child will see the characters the same, but draw up different dialog and describe the action in his or her own way. And even their narrative is likely to vary with each re-reading.

Newman has penned a truly relatable tale of a shy boy who wants to play baseball in The Boys. The only written words are the days that mark off our young outcast's first week in a new town. We don't know his name, but we know soon enough that he loves baseball, by the ever-present bat, ball and glove, and the longing look on his face as he watches the other kids playing in the park. Newman's characters ooze emotion, and the boy's face tells us more than any words could about what he feels.

Our timid hero only wants to be asked to play, and when he's not he seeks refuge on a bench with four old men, "the boys" of the book's title. The following day, resigned to a life on the sidelines, he returns to the bench, toting a book to fit in with his new bunch. By Thursday he's even dressing the part, wearing plaid pants and a bow tie as his bewildered new peers wonder among themselves what to make of this hanger-on. Their attempts to lure him back into childhood by moving to the playground fail until they hit upon the obvious: starting their own baseball game. The codgers lay a fat pitch on the boy, who blasts it out of the park, restoring his confidence enough for him to ask his way into the other children's ballgame.

Newman's artwork has a sense of humor, even if his main character generally doesn't. Much of it may be too subtle for a young reader, though their parents should appreciate it. The ratings on Amazon are all over the place, but it seems the chief complaint is the book didn't work for very young children. It will require more interpretation assistance from parents than most picture books, but therein lies the genius of what Newman has accomplished. I love The Boys, even if my boy at 9 months old may be years away from really appreciating it.

1 comment:

  1. Let him chew away! The tactile feel of a book is so important, and the story will only become better with age after all that special handling. Sounds like a sweet read ... those images are sure to capture your boy's attention on another level at some point. Thanks for the Tim Morris reference. It's good to see a university professor embracing children's literature together with baseball.