Few picture book titles come with qualifications. More often than not they are statements of strong purpose. I Can Do It Too! or No, I Want Daddy!. Declarative books with forthright ideas and messages for the preschool set. That's all well and good, but sometimes you want a book that entices you to pick through its pages from the title onward. Now there is no doubt that My Dad Is Big and Strong, But... is a work of translation. From the minute you look at it it has all the signs. The drawings are fun and eclectic but they feel strangely . . . European, perhaps? And the art inside is a mix of mixed media photographs and graphite. Then there's the story, which doesn't end with that kooky twist we Americans almost require in books of this sort these days. Finally there's that title that seems to float in mid-air without direction. Yes, there is no doubt left in your mind that this is a French translation, but there is also no doubt that it is one of the most charming and engaging picture books to hike down the pike in years. A story that upsets expectations but retains its heart, this is the perfect bedtime fare for any kiddo that rejects the very notion of going to sleep (and who has a sense of humor).
Our hero's dad has many fine and outstanding qualities. He is big. He is strong. But he does have one significant flaw that's hard to overlook. Every night it's the same old story. When bedtime rolls around he just adamantly refuses to go. The only thing to do is to start out by reading him some stories. After two he'll demand another but his son is having none of it. It's straight to bed and a game of waiting until the dad's asleep (if the son tries to go to bed early he'll just have to contend with a wide awake dad barging into his room anyway). Finally he seems to be asleep but just as the son attempts to turn out the life he hears, "No, don't do that! Leave the light on!" Because while his dad may be big and strong he's also a bit afraid of the dark.
There's an entire subgenre of picture books out there where expectations are upended to the delight of the child reader. I can think of four books off the top of my head where a character is scared about the first day of school and then turns out to be a teacher (Back to School Tortoise] by Lucy M. George was the latest). And Amy Krouse Rosenthal went to town with the idea in Little Pea (a pea refuses to eat his dinner of candy), Little Hoot (an owl wants to go to bed while his parents insist he stay up all night), and Little Oink (a pig doesn't want to dirty his room). Saudo's book isn't the first I've seen about a parent not wanting to go to bed either. Last year Amy Krouse Rosenthal (yet again) came out with Bedtime for Mommy. It was a sweet enough book (and the illustrations by LeUyen Pham were divine) but there's something about My Dad is Big and Strong that's better. I can't quite put my finger on it, but it has something to do with the combination of storytelling, visual and verbal.
The art itself is just a delight. Illustrator Kris Di Giacomo likes to draw figures with striking profiles then give them whole heaping handfuls of energy. The boy's dad does flips and throws himself bodily to the floor when the prospect of beddy-bye looms near. I enjoyed the fact that the dad always wears his hat, even when he's tucked into bed. And in these images we never have a moment where the roles are reversed, even for a second. The son is clearly the son in this situation and though he is filling the role of makeshift parent, he's still just a kid. How else to explain the images of his father picking him up, or the family photos on the walls behind them? Finally, from an aesthetic standpoint I couldn't help but love that the pages of the book itself were thick and sturdy. They make it feel like it's worthy of holding on to and treasuring.
Is translation an art or a science? A little of both, I think. In this case it was Claudia Zoe Bedrick who took it upon herself to translate the text of Mon Papa, Il est Grand, Il est Fort, MAIS. Now some translations feel wrong and awkward. Their words feel all elbows and angles, like someone tried to physically cram them into the wrong context. Nothing about this book feels like that. The language flows naturally like when the son explains to his father that he needs to get his rest so that he'll be in good shape the next day "it's right at that moment that things get complicated..." Bedrick is adept at pulling out just the right phrase at the right moment, but even more impressive is the fact that she manages to convey the right tone with the writing. The book projects this very familiar parental feeling of affection riddled with irritation. It is sweet and it is patient but it is also pretty darn clear that the son would like to go to bed himself and that just ain't happening. We relate. Kids won't. They'll just find it funny.
Heck, I even liked the typography of this book, which is saying something right there. I do worry that with its brownish cover there's a possibility that potential readers will pass right by this book without noticing it on the shelf. The trick is to get it into their hands by talking it up. Once you do, the story will reward them with its strange sweetness. Parents are always looking for interesting bedtime fare, and to find one that's funny to boot is just a nice plus. Don't be turned off by the fact that at a glance it doesn't resemble the hundred carbon copy titles out there about reluctant sleepyheads. This book is a true original in the best sense. Consider it your own little secret weapon on the war on bedtime. A find.
For ages 4-8.
2 people found this helpful.
Was this review helpful to you?