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Big Picture

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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.

A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever

written and illustrated by Marla Frazee

Summer can seem a long time away during the colder portions of the year, and summer books can hold a special promise and poignancy in the long run-up until the months of freedom. Truly stellar summer books, such as Lynne Rae Perkins’ Pictures from Our Vacation (BCCB 7/07), can evoke the weirdness and unexpected magic of summer’s free-form experiences even in the darkest season. Add in some snarky and boisterous grade-school humor, and you’ve got A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever.

The two boys of the title are James and his friend Eamon, who are spending a week with Eamon’s grandparents Bill and Pam to attend the nearby Nature Camp. Nature Camp itself is, to put it kindly, a mixed success (James: “I think it should be called Sit-Around Camp”; Eamon: “Yeah, or Sweat-a-Lot Camp”), but the stay with Bill and Pam is an unqualified triumph. The boys scarf down Pam’s generous and indulgent cooking, deflect Bill’s obsession with Antarctica, and make the basement their kingdom, camping on an enjoyably bouncy air mattress and luxuriously overdosing on videogames, overall relishing the combination of grandparental doting and modest running wild.

The book employs some ironic humor, allowing its illustrations to reveal the truth behind the straightlaced text in a way that will tickle kids on the funnybone right from the start (James “was very sad when his mother drove away,” the text assures viewers, while the illustrations show a beaming kid waving and encouragingly hollering “Bye!”). The irony is all the more delicious for its sly suggestion of subversion, with the well-meaning text offering the stodgy adult take on events while the knowing and irreverent illustrations divulge the kid reality. Yet there’s palpable affection here, and not just in the buddyhood between the two guys; in a conclusion that believably combines warm inclinations with the unrelenting urge to fiddle, the boys spend their last night out on the dock under the stars, making a mock Antarctica from beach detritus for Bill (the boys’ excited glosses on the elements, wherein “the white rocks are icebergs and the brown rocks are whales” and “this big stick is a big stick,” are dexterously authentic as well as hilarious).

Frazee is probably best known for her illustrations, and they do the greatest share of the work here. The art marks roundheaded, skinny-legged J&E as virtually identical, especially when hats obscure their differently unruly hair; while the viewers can identify them by the color of their shorts (James’ are blue, Eamon’s are red), they may just follow Bill’s droll lead and refer to the pairing as “Jamon.” The pencil-touched watercolors run to appropriately beachy aquas, even as they focus on the kids rather than the natural world; the vignette sequences of the duo’s various hijinks convey the boys’ tireless exuberance, while speech balloons contain utterances in pure Kidspeak (of course Bill’s gift of binoculars requires the two to examine each other up close, each happily exclaiming over his friend’s repulsiveness). The pell-mell jokeyness extends to covers—bedecked with the price label “25¢ (you wish)” and offering a thumbnail guide to the characters—and even the back flap, which helpfully offers instructions on how to make your own penguin out of a rock and a mussel shell, just as the boys do. Overall, it’s a format that works for reading alone as well as reading aloud, with the comradely tone ensuring a feeling of cool inclusion for reader or readee.

This sweetly captures the pleasures of youthful time-wasting in the company of your best friend with a keen understanding that those pleasures are best when they’re unsentimental. The result is just realistic enough to be perfect, a grade-schooler’s idyllic summer with limited demands for learning and bettering and a whole lot of reveling in kid priorities. A wonderful late-winter reminder that summer is coming, this will cheer up audiences by encouraging them to reflect on glorious summers past and even more glorious summers to anticipate.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor

Big Picture Image

Cover image by Marla Frazee from A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever ©2008. Used by permission of Harcourt, Inc.

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This page was last updated on March 1, 2008.