Let's say you want to write a children's book, and you are doing so because you have a point to make. If you're like many authors, you start out with that point in mind, then whip up a plot that more or less covers the ground you want, populate it with somewhat unique characters, and finish off with a great big ol' teachable moment at the end. Not unlike the ABC After School specials of my childhood, these types of books are somewhat less than subtle, if you get my drift.
And guess what? Kids tune out halfway through reading this type of thing. Oh yeah, you think you've been clever by making the character a monkey who doesn't know how to climb, or whatever, but trust me, kids see through it.
That's what makes Michael Hall's Red: A Crayon's Story such a winner. Hall definitely had a message in mind when he wrote this beguiling picture book, but the story is so well-executed, it totally sneaks up on young readers. It's filled with bold graphics that grab the eye and lots of sly humor. And, best of all, the theme -- that sometimes we're labeled one way, but we really are something else entirely -- is general enough to apply to lots of different scenarios, making this a great choice for school and classroom libraries, since educators can use it with all types of kids.
Our hero is Red, a crayon who doesn't fit in. He tries to do all the things he's supposed to -- draw a red berry, a red ant, even mix with yellow to draw an orange -- but he just can't. The other crayons have lots of opinions on where Red is going wrong. He should press harder, maybe, or not be so lazy. Even the other art supplies get in on the advice, offering to loosen his label or even sharpen him (ouch!). But try as he might, Red just can't do what is expected of him, and he completely blames himself.
In the end, it takes a sharp-eyed crayon called Berry to notice what's up -- Red isn't red at all, he's blue! And once Berry points this out, Red's whole outlook is changed. Suddenly he's drawing blue sky and ocean, and loving every minute of his crayon-y life.
Of course kids are going to see the problem right from the get-go, and they'll cheer like Sprout did when Red finally figures out his true colors. I read an interview with author/illustrator Hall in which he talked about his own childhood being diagnosed as dyslexic, and having written Red: A Crayon's Story in part as a response to that experience, I think Red absolutely works in that context, but in others as well. To be honest, my own first response and that of others I know who've read this book is to think of kids experiencing gender-identity issues. This would be an enormously comforting book to share with a child who didn't feel comfortable in his/her own skin, due to gender or any number of other experiences.
But most of all, Red is a great book to share with all kids, to teach them through a fun, lighthearted story that we are all more than the labels we give one another, and that we need to look beyond the surface to see someone's true colors - and to celebrate them!
Red: A Crayon's Story by Michael Hall, published by HarperCollins