A Neal Porter Book, Roaring Brook Press 2010
Recommended for ages 3 and up
Philip C. Stead’s charming story about a zookeeper and his animal companions is matched beautifully with the elegant pencil drawings and woodblock printings by his wife, Erin. E. Stead. From the very start the reader is drawn in by a warm two-page spread that depicts Amos’ bedroom. The action that moves the viewer’s eye towards the right- Amos stretching as his day begins and his armoire opened invitingly- is complemented by a series of strong vertical lines. There are the wide yellow stripes of the wallpaper and the thin green stripes on his pajamas. The effect is a sense of being enveloped, or better yet, being hugged. It is a feeling appropriate in a story about mutual affection, genuine kindness, and true friendship.
Amos McGee is an older gentleman (in the truest sense of the term) who lives in a little house sandwiched between two high-rise apartment buildings (a nod to Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House, I presume). Each morning after a bit of oatmeal and tea, Amos heads out in a fresh-pressed uniform to begin his workday at the City Zoo. It is clear from the first glimpse that this zoo is atypical: outside the gate, sitting high in a branch of a tree on the sidewalk, sits a monkey as comfortable as can be; inside the gate we can see a giraffe frolicking on the wide lawn. It doesn’t appear that these animals reside in the usual enclosures. Indeed, the animals seem to enjoy a life more akin to a fancy retirement community. We discover that Amos spends his days playing chess with the elephant, running races with the tortoise, sitting quietly with the shy penguin, soothing the rhino’s runny nose, and reading bedtime tales to the owl. It only makes sense that when Amos comes down with a bad cold and cannot make it to work, his animal friends hop on the bus and take care of him in the same gentle, loving way.
Besides the artfully understated beauty of the story and the characters, A Sick Day for Amos McGee stands out from almost all other picture books I’ve seen this year for the absolute genius in its visual storytelling. Erin E. Stead does not merely illustrate. She breathes life into an already delightful story while adding many more layers of expression.
Stead’s attention to the smallest details is what allows the reader/viewer to experience this book many times over and still discover surprises each time: from the miniature bus stop for the mouse to the tie-wearing bird; from the sweet absurdity of Amos’ bunny slippers to the depiction of a penguin donning floaties. Even Stead’s use of woodblock printing to add texture and a bit of color is thoughtful and well-used. It is apparent throughout the work that each pencil line, each color choice, each wrinkle in Amos’ face or in the folds of the tortoises’ knees, was deliberate and made with a careful eye and a loving hand. Stead has achieved elegance with an organic heart. There is nothing stuffy or too-precise about her lines. Rather, her remarkable drawing skills clearly allow her to bring an incredible warmth and individual personality to each character. The slightly retro feel of Amos’ surroundings (his antique stove and pocket watch, the 1950’s-esque bus, the lack of any modern technology) combined with the use of white space give the book a pleasant stillness and leisureliness.
Some books come into existence and it seems as if they have (or should have) always existed. They possess something timeless and fundamental. Perhaps they float in that creative ether, just waiting for the perfect author and artist to bring them to life. A Sick Day for Amos McGee is just such a book.