My daughter Eloise and I rarely share a favorite picture book – I still cringe thinking of her “Cat and the Hat” obsessed stage. But when it comes to Tom Lichtenheld, we’re always on the same page. Around our house these days, “Bridget’s Beret” is consistently at the top of the stack, and it’s usually followed by Lichtenheld’s “What Are You So Grumpy About?”
At the age of 2-almost-3, Eloise isn’t able to fully articulate exactly what it is about these books that hold her captivated, but I suspect the reasons are keeping with what originally led Lichtenheld to a career in illustration. His book jacket reads:
“Tom Lichtenheld is drawn to drawing. And puns. And alliteration. Ever since he discovered that creating children’s books lets him get away with all three at once, he’s been in hog heaven.”
Lichtenheld’s illustrations are the realized potential of every box of crayons you ever opened as a child – saturated in rich color, detailed in content and full of energy. His puns and other forms of humor are right up my alley – the wittiest children’s author around as far as I’m concerned. As for alliteration, Eloise just can’t resist the fun of repeating the double B’s in this book’s title.
“Bridget’s Beret” chronicles the journey of Bridget, a talented young artist whose cherished black beret is blown away – mid brushstroke – by the wind one day. She searches high and low for the beloved chapeau but to no avail. And without it, she fears she’s lost her ability to draw.
After several days of moping, Bridget reluctantly agrees to make a sign for her sister’s lemonade stand but grumpily warns: “No drawing.” Once she has paint and brush in hand, however, Bridget finds there’s no containing her artistic inspiration.
As someone who frequently loses prized possessions (and has only once recovered one), I’m relieved to say this book has a happy ending. Bridget regains her self-confidence and conquers artist’s block all without the aid of her beret, but her dear dog recovers the treasured hat and all is as it should be. (To find out what really happened to Bridget’s beret, visit Lichtenheld’s website and take a look at “The Stray Beret,” a two-page spread of illustrations omitted from the book.)
Lichtenheld refers to “Bridget’s Beret” as his answer to the Fancy Nancy series. In an incredibly interesting article for his publisher’s blog, Lichtenheld describes an authors and educators luncheon he attended at which he first learned of Jane O’Connor’s wildly popular debut in children’s literature:
“I’m not a raving feminist and I don’t begrudge any book that gets kids to read, regardless of subject matter, but I was surprised by the audience’s positive reaction to this new book. These were educators, mostly women, praising a story about a little girl who completely defined herself in terms of traditional feminine trappings. Pink ones, no less. Rather than rant or turn my breakfast into sour grapes, I decided to take some inspiration from the experience.”
The result was “Bridget’s Beret,” Lichtenheld’s first book aimed at a female audience. Previous books, including “Everything I Know About Pirates,” slanted more toward to interests of his peg-leg and eyepatch-obsessed nephew, Adam.
With “Bridget’s Beret,” however, Lichtenheld was certain to make his protagonist a “girl of substance beyond her appearance.” What I admire about Bridget are her looks of determination, air of confidence and the fact that she takes herself and her art seriously.
Lichtenheld reveals that he based the character on his niece, Madeline, with whom he often paints and draws. He says his books are, in general, written with a specific child in mind, either as the subject or the audience:
“For inspiration, I have a bunch of photos of kids on my wall. Whenever I’m stuck for an idea, I look at one of those photographs and think to myself, ‘What would make THAT kid laugh?’”
Miraculously, what Lichtenheld ends up with is as entertaining for the adult reader as it is for his target audience of 4-to-8-year-olds. Here’s my favorite bit of wit from “Bridget’s Beret:”
For those of you who aren’t familiar with this French turn of phrase, “Je ne sais quoi” literally translates as “I don’t know what.”
Prior to “Bridget’s Beret,” Lichtenheld wrote books he refers to as “encyclopedias of silliness,” or books lacking a traditional narrative with a plot, hero and moral. “What Are You So Grumpy About?,” the other Lichtenheld title in our home library, certainly qualifies in this category. Every square inch of this book is sheer goofiness, from the endpapers to tiny details in the illustrations to the author’s biography on the dust jacket.
See the concrete smirking? Admit it, you blame the sidewalk, too.
The inspiration for “What Are You So Grumpy About?” came from a plane ride the author spent sitting next to a particularly ill-tempered man. I can just imagine Lichtenheld biting his tongue to keep from asking this passenger what put him in such a foul mood. What came about instead was this series of possible explanations:
I’m amazed by the authenticity with which Lichtenheld is able to think and write from a child’s perspective (is there’s anything worse than touching food?) while at the same time humoring our adult frustrations (yes, cleaning dog snot on the patio door IS maddening!)
Many of these hilarious spreads were sketched before Lichtenheld even deplaned. On his website, he offers an amazing behind-the scenes look at how he turned these quick sketches into finished illustrations. Using his pencil drawings, Lichtenheld creates black line art, which he prints on watercolor paper. “It’s kind of like a home-made coloring book,” he says.” He then layers watercolor paints and colored pencil to achieve the finished product.
As an illustrator, Lichtenheld also had several successful collaborations with author Amy Krouse Rosenthal, including the New York Times Bestseller “Duck! Rabbit!” You’ve also seen his works on the shelves in the form of “Shark vs. Train,” created with author Chris Barton. In addition to “Bridget’s Beret” and “What Are You So Grumpy About?,” Lichtenheld has a handful of other solo projects, including his most recent: “Cloudette.”
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