Review by Annie Cronin Romano
When writers are seeking mentor texts that depict subtle ways to convey a message, the standouts can be challenging to find. There are picture books galore with themes of kindness, understanding, and acceptance, but far fewer that convey those themes with a light touch that permits young readers to experience the sentiment as it's developed rather that have it stated to them. Two recent standouts in the area of nuanced, subtle storytelling are Blanca Gómez's DRESS-UP DAY (Abrams, 2022) and Mac Barnett's JOHN'S TURN (Candlewick 2022).
In DRESS-UP DAY, a young girl is distressed to have missed her opportunity to dress up as a bunny for her class' dress-up day because she's out sick. She decides to wear her bunny outfit to school the next day (What could go wrong?) only to find the stares and snickers of her classmates crush her excitement about her costumed appearance. When a fellow classmate shows up wearing his carrot costume, caring not a smidge if the others in the class approve or not, the two enjoy a day of imaginative play. And their peers? They decide maybe costumes and pretend play might be fine any day one chooses and shouldn't have to be relegated to an assigned date. This change of heart is shown (never told) when the other children come to school the next day with dress-up gear of their own.
With smart, sparse text and evocative illustrations that make the characters' emotions dance off the page, Gómez conveys a message of acceptance and kindness without once stating or summarizing the theme of her story. The actions and illustrations do the heavy lifting but leave the interpretation to the reader.
In JOHN'S TURN, it's a young boy's turn to demonstrate his talent during the school's "Sharing Gifts" time. While a few children comment on the unfamiliar music playing before John takes the stage and question what he's about to do, John musters up the courage to perform his ballet routine in front of his school with confidence and pride. The audience of children, after watching the feat of John's impressive dancing, applaud him for his impressive talent.
In JOHN'S TURN, Barnett never once mentions that ballet is often considered by many to be a female pursuit, nor does he state that the children may be dubious of John's choice of interest. Rather, he lets the children's reactions--from a few snickers to intrigued silence to impressed applause--show how John's talent and passion for ballet breaks down the boundaries of conventional--though outdated--gender norms. Barnett's simple yet strong text--along with expressive illustrations by Kate Berube--gives the reader the space to experience the emotional power of the story without once pointing out the message.
Both DRESS-UP DAY and JOHN'S TURN are consummate examples of picture book texts that address themes of acceptance and kindness in a most subtle manner.
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