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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Those Shoes

by Maribeth Boelts; illustrated by Noah Z. Jones

Money and stuff. For all but the most ascetic among us, they are never far from mind, and the inner imps and angels that respectively urge “Acquisition!” and “Restraint!” whisper also into the ears of the very young. In this witty, wise picture book Boelts presents a kid’s-eye view of a consumer fad that rages through school at gale force and the students who are left twisting in the wind.

A huge, fiery orange billboard featuring an expensively shod basketball star screams its message, “Buy These Shoes,” and the kids in Jeremy’s school enthusiastically respond. As each day goes by, another student turns up in the coveted kicks (“Black high-tops. Two white stripes”), and soon only Jeremy and Antonio are mired in sartorial embarrassment. Grandma is unmoved by Jeremy’s gimme crusade (“There’s no room for ‘want’ around here—just need”), and she points out that new snow boots fall into the need category this season. But Jeremy does, in fact, need new shoes: his old sneaks fall apart on the playground and Mr. Alfrey, the counselor, supplies him with a temporary pair from a box of castoffs. The abject dorkiness of these blue, velcroed, cartoon-emblazoned sneakers drives Jeremy to desperation, and even Grandma recognizes the need to take him shopping. The price tag on the striped high-tops sends them both into sticker shock, but they track down a pair in a resale shop, and Jeremy plunks down his own money for them despite the fact that they’re way too small. He can’t take the pain, though, and soon he’s back again to wearing the despised “Mr. Alfrey shoes.” When it finally dawns on Jeremy that classmate Antonio’s taped-together shoes are even more humiliating than his own—and that Antonio’s feet are smaller—he generously gives Antonio the high-tops. Then a turn in the weather finally puts an end to the whole footwear drama, as a snowfall sends all the kids scrambling for their boots, and Jeremy is right in style after all.

Boelts knows a thing or two about grade-school sumptuary laws, and her deft observations of show-off technique are right on the mark. Brandon T. boasts that he can now outrun Jeremy, and kids who have succumbed to shoe seduction are painfully litanized: “Antonio and I count how many times Nate goes to the bathroom—seven times in one day, just so he can walk up and down the hall real slow.” Boelts also knows a thing or two about grandmothers: Jeremy’s grandma, who appears to be his guardian, is clearly trying to instill in him some fiscal responsibility, and she mutters the de rigueur “How kind of Mr. Alfrey” when Jeremy comes home in the blue shoes that sport an animal “from a cartoon I don’t think any kid ever watched.” But she also knows there’s a limit to how much chagrin a kid can suffer, and her “little bit of money set aside” will never be directed to anything other than her grandson’s comfort.

Jones mixed-media, digitally assembled pictures cleverly capture how thoroughly the shoe craze permeates every aspect of Jeremy’s life. The ad that fires desire covers a brick wall, dwarfing posters for race cars and jugglers and jazz, dwarfing Jeremy himself, sprawling across the double-page spread and bleeding off the edges of the recto. Jeremy incorporates Those Shoes into his yearning doodles, wherein they warm the tootsies of monsters and superheroes and feature in ethereal settings. Those Shoes creep into his homework, and even his spelling list seems to mock him: South America, Hawaii, Ohio, England, San Francisco. It is also illustration rather than text that establishes a neutral economic context in which the tale plays out. The urban streets and school are free equally of glitter and of grime; children of all ethnic backgrounds are clad in the expected array of pants and caps and shirts and hoodies, allowing viewers to focus on that single, salient variable, Those Shoes. Jeremy (African American) resides in a modest, tidy apartment that hints of creature comforts—his dinosaur collection, his adequately stocked closet, Grandma’s closely crammed bookcase. Even Antonio (Caucasian), the child who truly is needy, is only conspicuous in his taped sneakers. By refusing to connect craving to either income or ethnicity, Boelts and Jones create a work with broad appeal. Jonesin’ can and does smite everyone, and any kid who’s been the last one on the block to procure the latest must-have—whatever its monetary value— will feel the sting of Jeremy’s predicament. Fortunately, there’s also comfort here in the gentle message that fads fade, as well as a cautionary observation that a compelling ad, coupled with an infusion of peer pressure, can turn the consumer into the consumed.

Elizabeth Bush, Reviewer

Big Picture Image

Cover image by Noah Z. Jones from Those Shoes ©2007. Used by permission of Candlewick Press.

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This page was last updated on December 1, 2007.