Friendship is a tricky thing - I think we'd all agree. Sometimes you meet someone and instantly connect. Sometimes in my life I have met someone who I long to have as my friend, and it takes time to develop that connection. But sometimes you just know it's right. I see the same routines happen with my girls - they have made friends with the children of my adult friends, because they are so often together. Frances has recently become closer friends with a girl in her preschool class who she didn't like at all last fall. And Gloria, as is typical of Gloria's personality, has one true-blue friend, and he's a boy.
Elliot doesn't seem to have any human friends. At the beginning of the book, he appears, looking older than he is, surrounded by a circle of stuffed animals. His father, whose green plaid suit contrasts sharply with Elliot's refined tuxedo, asks Elliot if he would like to go to Family Fun Day at the aquarium. With an almost audible sigh, Elliot agrees, even though he knows that there will be a horde of noisy kids there. As soon as they arrive, Elliot's father plops on a bench to read National Geographic. Elliot roams on his own, steering clear of the crowds. And then Elliot discovers...the penguins! He identifies with their style and their posture. He feels that connection to a true friend. When he asks to take one home, his absorbed father agrees, thinking Elliot's buying one in the nearby gift shop. But of course, that's not what Elliot had in mind. The miscommunication between Elliot and his father (or is it willful misrepresentation?) continues after Elliot absconds with the penguin, who he names Magellan. This ongoing miscommunication ends in a delightful, surprising clarification at the end, a twist that is unexpected and marvelous.
Buzzeo's text is crisp and stark. Just like Elliot, it can be refined. When the father is speaking, you can feel his attempts to find something to connect with his son. Both Elliot and his father are self-contained fellows - the father pores over his journals, maps and diagrams. Elliot putters away making his penguin comfortable. They are both speaking English, but don't seem to be speaking the same language.
One of the nifty design elements in this book ties together Buzzeo's text with Small's illustrations. Dialogue is entered in balloons, adding to this book's retro, graphic feel. If there are multiple lines of dialogue, the balloons are stacked. This is helpful for new readers, to indicate who is saying what on the page. It also helps indicate the order of the conversation. There is also a distinction between thought bubbles (more scalloped in shape) and dialogue balloons (smooth and oval) to guide readers. It's very clever.
Buzzeo's text is pared down and sophisticated, although it isn't too sophisticated for young readers to get a sense of Elliot's isolation and loneliness. As Elliot winds a garden hose through the house (making an ice rink for the penguin), he tells his father "Forgive the inconvenience." But the text and illustrations work perfectly together - where Buzzeo is short and sweet, Small;s illustrations are grandiose - in a good way! - filling double-page spreads. They are over the top, with Elliot's father's crazy colored suit, tufts of orange hair and eyes rolling wildly with excitement.
But while the text draws me into the story, I have to spend some time focusing on David Small's amazing illustrations. First of all, the palette for the illustrations are cool tones - an icy blue, white, grey, and black. Other colors are used, but these choices set the tone right from the cover. The word "COOL" is icy blue, along with a tiled square motif along the spine, echoing the tiles in the aquarium. The rest of the cover (Elliot and the penguin back to back) is sharply black and white. And this continues throughout.
This book, after all, is about a penguin and you can almost see Magellan revel in the icy pages. One of my favorite illustrations shows Elliot and Magellan whirling on a makeshift ice rink. The focus of the page is Elliot, dressed in uncharacteristically bright colors, eyes closed with contentment. He is happy. But there are other details which make this page worth poring over - all of the stuffed animals are wearing scarves and earmuffs because the air conditioner is on full-blast. Mobiles and globes drip icicles. The details say just as much about the situation as the main picture does.
The illustrations remind of the matter-of-fact silliness of The Christmas Crocodile - one of my favorite Small-illustrated books. In both books the wackiness of the core situation (in The Christmas Crocodile, a family receives a large package delivered to them - bet you can't guess what's inside!) is in sharp relief against the ordinariness of the setting. But in One Cool Friend, once you read to the end, and discover the father's secret, you'll want to go back and re-read the book. There are many clever indications of the father's secret embedded in the pages - another level of humor for readers to enjoy.
This book fits readers on so many levels - those readers who might long for a penguin, those who might long for the understanding of a perfect friend, those who are looking for a place to fit in. Oh! I can't believe I didn't mention it before, but there is also a cool librarian featured in these pages - one more thing to love about this book. All in all, this is a surefire hit, and not to be missed!
One Cool Friend. Toni Buzzeo; pictures by David Small. Dial Books, 2012.
The Christmas Crocodile. Bonny Becker and David Small. Simon & Schuster, 2012.
One Cool Friend borrowed from Lewis & Clark library, The Christmas Crocodile is my personal copy.