Beauty, Art, Music in Literature Books Early Readers Genre Lifespan of a Reader Picture Books Reading Themes

Of Stylish Hats and Dreadful Sweaters

Meet Madame Chapeau (with the fashionable hats) and Lester (with his dreadful sweaters).

Myra here.

These two books are perfect for our current reading theme as they feature fashion and standards of beauty, regardless of whether they fall short of it or not.

Happy Birthday Madame Chapeau

Written by Andrea Beaty Illustrated by David Roberts
Published by Harry N. Abrams (2014)
ISBN: 1419712195 (ISBN13: 9781419712197). Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

From the creators of Rosie Revere, Engineer and Iggy Peck, Architect – come another charming story about the finest European hatmaker named Madame Chapeau who lives on her own. So singular are her creations that whoever visits her shop leaves a transformed being.

Yet this solitary existence can be somewhat lonely too, as Madame Chapeau dines on her “sliver of gouda, a plum, and a scone” on her own. Despite this, Madame Chapeau knows how to treat herself, especially during her birthday, when she takes out her most elegant dress from the box where she keeps it for the rest of the year, and dines in the best place in town.

However, on her way to Chez Snooty-Patoot, her lovely hat was stolen by this mischievous raven. As Madame Chapeau chased the thief in the streets of this European city (possibly, France?), there were so many well-intentioned, dapper, generous men who were more than willing to offer her their own hats as substitute to Madame Chapeau’s missing one.

While the story seems like the search for that perfect companion (clearly there are so many of them waiting to be considered) and the missing hat, there is so much more to the story in the end, especially if the young reader has an eye for detail. There is something (or someone) else in the pages not explicitly articulated in the text, but avidly waiting for the right moment to come out. And when it did, it was absolutely, perfectly fitting.

Lester’s Dreadful Sweaters

Written and Illustrated by K. G. Campbell
Published by Kids Can Press (2012)
ISBN: 1554537703 (ISBN13: 9781554537709). Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

I didn’t really know what to make of this book initially, if I were to simply judge it by its cover. However, I do love Campbell’s The Mermaid and the Shoe (see my review here) and am also aware that Campbell illustrated Kate DiCamillo’s Flora and UlyssesAnd so, notwithstanding the less-than-appealing cover, I dived into the book. Apparently, this is Campbell’s debut picturebook creation.

The story begins with the unfortunate news that Lester’s distant relative Cousin Clara’s cottage was consumed by a crocodile, and hence, Cousin Clara (not clear really how Cousin Clara became a cousin exactly) had to live with them.

What is even more unfortunate, however, is Cousin Clara’s well-meaning efforts to knit sweaters for Lester. While it may be deemed as terribly thoughtful, the sweaters are evidently ill-fitting, decidedly-strange, with holes that lead nowhere and extra sleeves that served no purpose whatsoever.

It is not surprising then that Lester became quite the laughingstock in his school – especially with the presence of Enid Measles who always “said several irksome things” in response to Lester’s ghastly sweaters with the large buttons or “oddly-placed upside-down pockets.”

Fortunately for Lester, these sweaters-from-hell meet some kind of “inexplicable tragedy” – they either get lost, get eaten by ostriches, or stolen by fashion-challenged bandits. Unfortunately for Lester, Cousin Clara is a fast-knitter who churns up sweaters like they were microwaveable popcorn. Before they even get lost, there is a suitable (or unsuitable) replacement to take its place.

How Lester’s dilemma was eventually solved, I shall leave it to you to discover. I absolutely enjoyed this picturebook’s affinity with the absurd, its complex language that respected young reader’s smarts, and its refreshing wit that is grounded upon most young people’s actual experiences with well-meaning relatives and their dreadful Christmas sweaters. I imagine this working well as a read-aloud. As the holidays draw near, do avoid giving out dreadful sweaters as gifts – or simply avoid Cousin Claras entirely, if you can.

#LitWorld2018GB Update: US (K. G. Campbell and Andrea Beaty are based in the US) and UK (David Roberts is based in London).

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