Mar 20, 2019

How We See Ourselves: HENRY THE BOY

How we see ourselves matters. It is shaped in both subtle and obvious ways, rooted in early childhood, and, all to often, negatively affected by those around us. That can happen intentionally, through bullying, but also through the most casual of comments, glances, or even subconscious bias and consistent micro-aggressions.

Penny Candy Books, April, 2019
HENRY THE BOY is written by Molly Felder and illustrated by the mother-son team of Tara Sweeney and Nate Christopherson. It is true for all picture books that the story begins on the cover. In this case I especially urge you to linger at the cover, before knowing anything else about Henry.  Ask yourself what it tells you about Henry and who this boy really is. Here's what I came up with:

  • Henry the Boy with curious eyes. 
  • Henry the Boy with a big imagination.
  • Henry the Boy living in a colorful world of possibilities.
  • Henry the Boy with places to go and things to do.
  • Henry the Boy with feelings.
Oh, perhaps you also noted that Henry the Boy wears glasses and has crutches. Those are also his truth, but are such small parts of HENRY THE BOY. The cover encourages readers to begin by seeing HENRY THE BOY, not Henry, the boy on crutches.

The illustrators use a combination of surrealistic distortions and additions to surround Henry, but safely embed those into stable and familiar scenes. Henry begins his day with a smile, using his sticker-covered crutches to descend steps, that are, in his reality, extremely steep. The images also reveal that coming downstairs to breakfast is a familiar challenge he has mastered, smiling while envisioning his sticker-covered, clicking crutches as his heron legs. 
It is during interactions with others, from classmates to his friend Joel, that Henry confronts the labels others use for him. Even if meant in fun (robot, chicken) Henry the BOY knows they are seeing that last detail, those crutches, as the most important one about him. They are erasing his agency and empowerment to reshape his perception of himself. 
And they are hurting his feelings.

With that problem presented in the first pages, Henry and Joel are free to have fun- on the playground, on their walk home, and in Henry's muddy backyard. Their adventures unleash the illustrators to splash the backgrounds with vibrant color and "people" the foreground with fine-lined drawings of the various metaphorical comparisons that arise throughout the book. Henry's freedom to just be a BOY in these pages is empowering, as is the end-of-play moment in which Henry manages to use his crutches to stand up on his own, no helping hand required. The help of being allowed to be a BOY has already been given.

Henry's busy day ends as we would hope-- with Henry the BOY as happy as he was when the day began. His book, his collection of object-friends, and his experience of acceptance and engagement with Joel have provided the confidence for Henry to be a BOY.

The combination of color, curiously engaging line drawings, and story will draw the youngest back to this book again and again. In the process, they will meet HENRY the BOY, absorbing the appealing sense that we are all more alike than different, and we can do more than others might imagine we can. In the process this offers a wealth of discussion potential about topics of resilience, empathy, confidence, and problem solving. 

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. It is available now for preorder with a publication date of April 2.

1 comment:

Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.