Monday, June 11, 2007

Who is Melvin Bubble?

It's that time again - New Favorite Children's Book time!

There have been several good candidates since my last favorite, The Runaway Dinner. Dumpster Diver still right up there for its lessons about teamwork, adaptive re-use, and community (plus that sweet Missoni zigzag jumpsuit on the one girl); and Not A Box is genius. The Piggie and Elephant first readers by Mo Willems are instant eternal go-to books for early readers.

I've been going through A LOT of these things recently, spending Big Man's school library's limited funds for next year. I also recently needed to buy about a dozen picture books as gifts for adults, and how satisfying matching up my friends and relations to their perfect books, and owning these beautiful, innovative things even just for a little while!

One book I haven't mentioned here yet is A Seed is Sleepy, the follow-up to An Egg Is Quiet. Both books are stunning and well-formatted, but the seed book I think is even better than the egg. There's more variation among seeds, and the author gets to describe methods of seed locomotion, contrast seed appearance with plant appearance, etc. Really nice.

But on to the New Favorite: Nick Bruel's Who Is Melvin Bubble? I knew this was gonna be a winner when I spotted its bright red cover and huge, cartoony title font, and I was not disappointed.

Premise: Melvin Bubble's best friend Jimmy writes a letter to Nick Bruel asking him to write a book about his best friend Melvin. Ooh, meta! Then, in a series of two-page spreads, the author asks Melvin's mom & dad, his dog, his teddy bear, his closet monster, the tooth fairy, a magic rock, a talking zebra, a princess, and others to describe Melvin Bubble. Naturally, each describes a different facet of the kid (monster thinks Melvin is delicious, mom says he's messy, tooth fairy says he has a big head, while the talking zebra uses up all his space worrying about lions), and the author finally resorts to asking Melvin himself.

Why do I think this book is genius? Besides being legitimately funny and sly, and offering the reader a perfect opportunity to roll out some great funny voices, this book opens up a terrific conversation about how others see us and how we see ourselves.

Last Friday, Big Man's kindergarten presented the books they've been writing and illustrating all spring. It was great stuff: we had descriptions of vacations, of injuries, counting, and meals out. Each kid also wrote an "About the Author" bit on the inside back cover. Big Man wrote "[Big Man] is a good learner" (actually "[Big Man] Z A GOD LRNR") which I would like to embroider as a sampler for that teacher - he thinks he's a good learner because she has made him one.

Nick Bruel did a cute About the Author for Melvin Bubble, illustrated with a cartoon self-portrait with arrows pointing out details such as "right-handed" and "sometimes wears a beard". We get a lot of interest in the authors by the kids - I've made sure to place the autobiographies of Beverly Cleary, Lois Lowry, and Jack Gantos in the school library. One of the reference questions the fourth graders came up with was, "Where does Walter Dean Myers get his ideas?"

This kindergarten year has been breathtaking. I was so worried at the outset that Big Man would be the tantrum kid at school, that he would have a lot of social catching up because he'd never been to preschool or daycare. There have been so many new protocols for Bob and I to learn and follow. We were all freaked out that someone other than us was going to be judging and evaluating our kid (and by implication, us). We knew how to deal with his imperfections, just as Melvin Bubble's mom loves him even though he is the "messiest kid in the world", but we worried about how they would be perceived in the context of 21 other kids.

But in fact, we really lucked out. His teacher has been brilliant, patient, and thoughtful. She led him and the other kids through a year of learning about respect and cooperation, took Big Man from an all-Ego baby to a kid who understands empathy.

Yesterday most of the kids on the block got together for an impromptu bug fest. They found a whole mess of pill bugs (roly polies) and put them in the bug cage that Mr. Four got for his birthday. At dinner last night, Big Man explained that Up The Street Boy had told him that the roly polies were an army and the worms were their king and queen. When Bob and I questioned that, Big Man thoughtfully replied, "You can't trust [Up The Street] about everything, but you pretty much can trust him on bugs."

I guess what I'm trying to express is that we're watching Big Man learn to think, to evaluate, to examine himself and his surroundings, and I swear, it's like reading Descartes.

But I'd rather read Who is Melvin Bubble? again.