The Money We’ll Save
In her recent SLJ article, “Make Way For Stories,” Anita Silvey discusses one of the reasons for the current picture book malaise.
I, too, bemoan the lack of picture storybooks. So much of what we see, no matter how clever it is, can be described as a joke book. Some are very good jokes, but once you’ve read the text, you don’t really need to read it hundreds of times. Words have been pared down to a bare minimum; writers sometimes are told to use no more than 500. You can tell a great story with less than 500 words—think of Where the Wild Things Are (338 words) and The Carrot Seed (101 words)—but you may have to be a genius to do so! And there’s probably a limit on the number of stories that can be told well in under 1,000 words.
THE MONEY WE’LL SAVE, which Publishers Weekly aptly described as “charmingly loopy,” bucks this minimalist trend, offering a great story with a longer text. I’ve spent this past week reading it to various first, second, and third grade classes. I find that with a picture book text I really need to read it many times–first to myself silently a couple of times and then aloud to several classes–before I start to fully appreciate its distinguished qualities. And now that I’ve done that, I find there’s plenty to admire here.
While the pictures do a wonderful job of conveying the setting, so does the text, particularly with sentences like this one: “Bridget was in the parlor pulling basting threads from one of the coats Ma was making for the wholesale trade.” What’s a parlor? Basting threads? The wholesale trade? Cole’s challenging, sophisticated vocabulary provides textual clues to the setting that, in tandem with the pictures, leave readers with an indelible impression of the period. Those of us who read FLESH & BLOOD SO CHEAP will also remember that this sentence portrays the garment industry before the rise of industrialized sweatshops.
The pacing is brisk and the plot logically ebbs and flows from one problem and solution to a new problem and solution. Each solution is more ridiculous than the previous one, and the final solution is a nice surprise, but one that is not out of character if one reflects on the personality of Mrs. Schumacher throughout the story. Does she really like complaining that much? Or is she just lonely?
Character is just as strong as plot. While the children, and even the bird, are nicely drawn, it’s really the adults that steal the show here: the long-suffering mother, the well-meaning but absent-minded father, and the nagging Mrs. Schumacher. It is their personalities, and their actions that drive the story. The entire family dynamic–the neighborhood dynamic, too–is also nicely done.
Cole’s sentences are often quite lengthy and complex, yet they convey their meaning clearly. The rhythm and cadence of the text is musical, largely because of repetition: alliteration, consonance, assonance.
All the pennies in the purse had been spent on pens and pulleys and laundry soap, so the next day there was nothing to eat but oatmeal with a bit of brown sugar.
Note the “p” sounds at the beginning of pennies, purse, pens, and pulleys–and in spent and at the end of soap. Also note the “b” sounds in but, bit, and brown (and the next sentence also starts with but so you get four in a row there). The “p” and “b” sounds are made with the same mouth shape, but the difference is the air and vocal cords. The “s” and “z” sounds work the same way. Note the “s” sounds at the beginning of spent, so, and soap–and at the end of purse. And the “z” sounds at the end of pennies, pens, pulleys, and was. Assonance is when the vowels sounds repeat but the consonants change. There are several instances of that in the sentence, but note the long e sounds in the second syllables of pennies, pulleys, laundry, nothing, and oatmeal (and in the single syllable of eat)–and the short e sounds in pennies, been, spent, pens, and next. While the sentence structure may be complex, the syllable counts are low–most words have one syllable and a few have two–and that lends itself to these kind of literary devices. Well, that’s probably too much information (there’s more packed in that one sentence–honestly!), but it’s the kind of thing that makes reading this text so much fun–once you’ve wrapped your tongue around it several times.
Oh, and did I mention the story is funny? The proposition of eating Mrs. Schumacher for Christmas dinner consistently brings the most laughs, but there are many amusing moments that induce smiles and snickers.
This story reminds me of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Oh, it’s not a retelling, but I think it’s reminiscent in a couple of key respects. The first is the beginning, where Ma sends Pa off to the market with strict instructions about what to buy, but Pa comes back with something else entirely, not magical beans, but a turkey poult–and then the adventure begins. And the second resemblance for me is the ending, which is kind of a counterpoint to Jack’s story. Rather than becoming rich (or saving money even), the family in this story lives happily ever after–in poverty. Here it’s love, not money, that is the root of happiness and prosperity. And that it happens at Christmas time (which should be a celebration of love, but is often a celebration of money) ties the theme back to the setting, and strengthens it.
There may be stronger picture book texts out there this year (and by all means alert us to them in the comments), but this is the best that I have seen. My standard for a picture book Newbery is DOCTOR DE SOTO and I find that this one measures up very well. It’s distinguished in all elements–plot, character, setting, style, and theme–and for those of you who found the text-picture relationship of I BROKE MY TRUNK! so problematic, you should be able to get behind this one much more easily. Ultimately, I also find that it passes Silvey’s test of being able to read it again and again and again–and rather than growing tired of it, I find it even more charmingly loopy than the previous time.
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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