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Peculiar Families in Picture Books: The Graves Family, My Tattooed Dad, Mars Needs Moms!

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Our bimonthly theme until the end of April gives much recognition to picture books that challenge the mind with its peculiar themes, surreal artwork, and distinct narrative qualities: Oddballs and Misfits, the Surreal and the Peculiar, A Celebration of Beautiful Strangenesses. As I was going through some of the books I managed to borrow from our library for this theme, I noted that there are apparent trends that cut across several books. The spread that I have here highlights the strange and the peculiar among families in picture books for children.

IMG_6592The Graves Family

Written and Illustrated ByPatricia Polacco
Publisher: Philomel Books, 2003.
Bought my own copy of the book. Book photos taken by me.

In the title page Patricia Polacco wrote:

Those who march to a different drummer are in a magnificent band indeed!

True enough, this entire picture book speaks about what it is like to be considered outcasts, to be perceived as strange and peculiar by others.

The Graves Family moved into the old house on Park Street at the dead of the night to avoid prying eyes. The house was painted blood-red, strange noises could be heard inside the house, and they have a “hideous-looking door knocker” that seemed to have a life of its own.

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Despite this, there were two children from the neighborhood, Sara and Seth Miller who welcomed the young boy from the Graves household. His name is Hieronymus and he has four younger siblings – quadruplets with fiery red hair named Billicent, Cintilla, Congolia and Tondileo.

It turns out Hieronymus’ father is some kind of mad-genius-scientist while his mother is a fox-wearing, spider-loving matriarch who considers herself a gourmet cook of living breathing menu from exotic places. With Venus flytraps, gigantic and hairy spiders and strange hair-growing formula extracted from follicles of cats’ hair – the book has an adventure-filled and action-packed narrative.

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Add the hoity-toity prissy and prim neighborhood ladies hosting a Garden Club Tea party with such strange and delicate creatures and you have a wild tale in your hands. While this is not one of my favorite picture books by Patricia Polacco, it does highlight the sense of isolation keenly felt by those who are labeled as different and how strange predilections can generate fear and hostility – unless legitimized and recognized for its uniqueness.

My Tattooed DadIMG_6578

Story ByDaniel Nesquens
Illustrations By: Magicomora
Publisher: Groundwood Books, House of Anansi Press, first published in English in Canada and the USA in 2011
Book borrowed from the public library. Book photos taken by me.

I chanced upon this book by accident in the library as I was hunting for more picture books to feature for our theme. The cover alone was enough to draw me into the story. My husband and I had ourselves inked over ten years back (I have a tattoo on my ankle while my husband has a tribal sun on his arm), plus body art has always fascinated me.

Similar to Polacco’s The Graves Family this picture book does not follow the formulaic 300-words-only narrative. It is text-heavy with short chapters that share the significance of the strange tattoos found in Father’s body:

Dad goes and comes. Like the day, like the night.

When you least expect him, swoosh, you’ll find him digging in the garden, pulling out weeds that have grown up all over the place. Or he’ll be in the kitchen, wearing an apron, making dinner as though he hasn’t just been away for more than two months.

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The narrator of the story, the young boy, shares that reading his father’s tattoos “is more fun than reading any book ever written.” Much of this is owed to his father’s fantastical stories – with a dab of magical realism that demonstrates the blurring of boundaries between make-believe and reality. The reader gets to travel to The Island of the Sea Monkey and meet creatures such as a Pim tiger and an ice-cream grabbing elephant named Mahler. There are flame trees, gypsies in carnivals, and one-eyed spiders – and a keenly-sensed longing for a father who is barely there and whose presence is felt only through the stories he leaves behind and unlikely tales and trinkets he sends through the occasional mail and postcards.

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It is my first time to read a book created by Daniel Nesquens who lives in Zaragoza Spain and is described to be a prolific award-winning author for children. Magicomora, the illustrator, lives in Barcelona and is considered one of the most important pop surrealist artists in Spain. Definitely one of my most unusual finds this year.

IMG_6017Mars Needs Moms!

Story and Pictures ByBerkeley Breathed
Publisher: Philomel Books, 2007.
Borrowed from the public library. Book photos taken by me.

Now this picture book has a touch of the otherworldly in the literal sense of the word. Berkeley Breathed takes us to outer space in this gorgeously-illustrated picture book (that apparently has been adapted into a film), Mars Needs Moms!

Milo, the young little boy in this story, wonders with perfect candor (and with justified bewilderment) what is special about mothers, exactly. As he has observed in his ripe young age (and the wisdom that he has gained during this period of time):

Anyone could see that they were giant, summer stealing, child-working, perfumy garden goblins. There was hardly much special about that.

Mothers were also bellowing broccoli bullies and carrot-cuddling cuckoos. Nothing very special about that, thought Milo.

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It is almost as if I can hear my own eleven year old daughter’s voice as I can see Milo whining about mothers being slave drivers, “rubbish odor ogres,” veritable tyrants who bosses children around, telling them what to do, when to do it, and exactly how they should do it. Nothing special about them, really.

Until that one fateful evening when Martian raiders invaded our quiet little planet and kidnapped (or is it mom-napped) all the mothers from every household, bringing them to the lonely red planet in need of strong women to drive little Martians to soccer practice, playdates, and parks. Not to mention the cooking, cleaning, the bandaging, the tying of loose ends, the kissing of boo-boos, the buying of pizza, the packing of lunches, among many other things.

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One again, the ending of this gorgeously-illustrated picture book has brought unbidden tears to my eyes. Similar to Berkeley Breathed’s Pete and Pickles, this tale blindsides you. It amuses you in the beginning yet packs a punch in the end that pierces the heart in all its strangeness and truth. Absolutely beautiful. A must-read.

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Golden Duck Award for Excellence in Children’s Science Fiction for Mars Needs Moms! 2008 Picture Book

AWB Reading Challenge Update: 27 of 35

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Read-a-Latte Challenge: 84, 85, 86 of 150

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

4 comments on “Peculiar Families in Picture Books: The Graves Family, My Tattooed Dad, Mars Needs Moms!

  1. Pingback: [Monday Reading] Old People in Colin Thompson’s Picturebooks: “The Big Little Book of Happy Sadness” and “Free to a Good Home” | Gathering Books

  2. Pingback: [BHE 183] Singapore Library Warehouse Sale 2015 | Gathering Books

  3. Pingback: [Monday Reading] Different Facets of Fatherhood in 2016 Picturebooks – Gathering Books

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