Thursday, September 27, 2012

Picture Book Review - Oscar's Half Birthday by Bob Graham

I first encountered Bob Graham's work eons ago as a bookseller, when his title "Let's Get a Pup!" Said Kate was newly published. The book resonated with me for a lot of reasons - the nontraditional vibe about the family (tattoos! nose rings!), the really-real household environment (clutter and all), the fact that the family ends up with not one dog but two. It was one of those I bought and stuck away for my own kiddo, someday.

Fast forward to today when I actually do have my own wee one, and what do you know, Bob Graham's one of his favorite author/illustrators. We've read not only Kate, but also Graham's April and Esme, Tooth Fairies and most recently (and repeatedly) A Bus Called Heaven, which can and probably will be the subject of its own post. How this talented man hasn't received more awards and accolades I'll never know - just to pick up one of his titles is to be transported into a world where the prosaic and magical intersect in the form of angelic toddlers with messy hands and fairy godmother-esque grandmas bearing chocolate cakes. The books Graham creates are equal parts unique and comforting, the kinds of experiences you never knew you always wanted.

One of my personal picks from among Graham's excellent catalog of titles is 2005's Oscar's Half Birthday. It's fair to say that this one probably stands out because of its multiracial family - Mom's dark-skinned with braids, Dad's light-skinned with a soul patch, and the kiddos, Millie and Oscar, are a beautiful blend of both. We don't have enough of this in kidlit, and it's especially nice that the family just is, no mention of skin color necessary, thank you very much. I love how deftly Graham mixes in diversity with all of his titles, like a pinch of spice that livens up the whole concoction.

But beyond the broad color palette, Oscar's Half Birthday is just a solidly built piece of children's literature. Oscar's having a half-birthday party - mostly because no one can wait for his real birthday - and that forms the central plot of this cozy tale. Mom and Dad and Millie pack up picnic fixings and set out for a hilltop park, pushing Oscar in his stroller and led by Boris the dog. Along the way there are adventures, none too scary but just thrilling enough: squawking gulls overhead, a train rocketing down the tracks, a meandering path through the woods as Oscar slumbers. One really feels that the journey is most of the adventure. At last the family makes it to the hilltop and finds the perfect picnic place. Suddenly the family's circle has expanded to take in a whole crowd of bystanders, and all join in the chorus of "Happy Birthday" to Oscar.

Like so many of his other works, Oscar's Half Birthday celebrates not only family and camaraderie but also community and the place we all have in one another's lives. That all the characters are drawn to the birthday celebrations seems natural, simple and perfect. And the ending is pitch-perfect too. After the action on the hilltop, Graham brings his characters back to their comfy apartment home, for the tried-and-true ritual of bath and cuddles for Millie and Oscar, a little slow dancing for Mom and Dad.

Reading this together at bedtime is like slipping into a pair of favorite pjs, soft and familiar. There's something new to look at each time through, so much detail for Sprout to examine and exclaim over. It affords us plenty of chances to talk about our own day's activities, the perfect key-down to another busy day of fun and family.

Oscar's Half Birthday by Bob Graham, published by Candlewick Press
Ages 3-7
Source: Library
Sample: "Near the top, the path goes through woods. They listen to the wind in the trees and the drone of distant traffic. Boris chases rabbits. / Oscar frowns in the dim light -- six different expressions on his face in the time it takes a leaf to fall."
Highly recommended

Bonus: Author Suzy Becker on her visit to Bob Graham, from Publisher's Weekly (file this under "things about which I am profoundly jealous")

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