Remember the book I’m Bored from a few years ago? You know, the one by Michael Ian Black and Debbie Ridpath Ohi in which a young girl, who is bored, tries to prove to a potato, also bored, that kids are not boring. Despite all her creative efforts—spinning, singing, pretending she’s a ballerina and a lion tamer, etc.—the potato isn’t buying it. No matter what she does, his response is the same: Boring. But guess who isn’t bored anymore?
I love the message—that imagination can banish boredom—and the fact that it’s delivered in such a funny, offbeat way. I love that it features a talking potato, as well as a flamingo who shows up rather randomly at the very end. I love Debbie’s hilarious illustrations.
So when I saw I’m Sad at the library—with the familiar girl, potato and flamingo on the cover—I nabbed it. Then hesitated. Boredom is one thing. But sadness? How would this oddball cast of characters take on this very real human emotion?
Very nicely, as it turns out.
There are comforting responses . . .
As well as philosophical ones . . .
Eventually, the girl and Potato decide they’re going to cheer Flamingo up. But nothing she proposes—ice cream, hockey, spy stuff—works. Potato’s sure-fire mood-elevator—dirt—also falls flat.
This part works really well. Why? Because (a) it very effectively makes the point—in a funny way—that what lifts one person’s spirits may not work for the rest of us. And (b) It respects kids’ feelings. The friends are unsuccessful. Flamingo is still sad.
At this point, the girl says maybe it’s okay to be sad. When Flamingo frets that his friends won’t like him if he continues to feel down, the girl assures him she’ll like him no matter what. Just when you think it might be taking a turn for the maudlin, Potato lightens things up with some snarky humor.
Flamingo: What about you, Potato? Will you still like me if I’m sad again tomorrow?
Potato: I don’t even like you now.
Then comes the page turn . . .
Does Potato’s joke “fix” things?
No. Flamingo still feels “a little bit sad.” But also “a little bit better.”
While both books take a minimalist approach to storytelling, there’s a lot here for picture book creators to chew on (sorry, Potato!). For example, in a dialogue-only manuscript, how do you tell a story, convey emotions and communicate a serious message without being heavy-handed about it? And in a book with such limited text, how does an illustrator fill in the story gaps, give each character a distinct personality and show real emotions—especially when one of the characters is a starchy tuber?
The New York Times children’s book editor has a great interview with Michael and Debbie—complete with on-the-spot art-making—over here. (It even sheds some light on the potato-personality question.) While watching, I learned there are two more books planned: I’m Worried and I’m Happy. Since the girl and Flamingo have each been featured in the spotlight, I’m eager to see Potato’s star turn.
Thanks for reading—