(Second in a occasional series featuring highly biased editorial book lovin'; spoilers ahoy.)
I first heard of Timothy and the Strong Pajamas by Viviane Schwarz when it showed up on Arthur's "Future Planning" list in the fall of 2006. "'Strong Pajamas'?" I said to Arthur. "What is that?"
He grinned and said, "It's a book Alison Green is publishing for Scholastic UK. You'll love it."
"Ooo-kay," I said -- or more likely thought, because you do not say "Ooo-kay" doubtfully to your boss. But when I saw the layouts a few months later, Arthur was proved right, as he usually is, because this book is the picture-book equivalent of a baby seal: utterly delightful, totally kid-friendly*, and perfectly irresistible. You can try to withstand its charm, but you will fail.
And why wouldn't you want to give in? The book focuses on Timothy Smallbeast, a rodent-like creature of indeterminate species, but definitely about six human years in age. Every night, Timothy tries to make himself stronger by drinking a "big mug of fortified milk" and eating "three extra-tough cookies," doing some exercises, and thinking "STRONG thoughts." (Writers will notice that the author has already tapped into a primal childhood emotional desire -- to be bigger, stronger and more powerful -- thus rendering her hero both psychologically real for his age and instantly sympathetic to children; illustrators will notice that the "STRONG thoughts" vignette shows Timothy meditating with his legs crossed, which makes his thinking visually interesting and is cute as heck to boot.) Unfortunately, his pajamas get worn out through all that activity, so his mother sews on "lots of sturdy patches" and "six very red buttons" using "the strongest thread."
And the next morning, when Timothy opens his bedroom door, he pulls it right off its hinges! Mom's magic has turned his nightclothes into "Super Strong Pajamas," complete with the "PATCHES of POWER" and "BUTTONS of BRAVENESS," as his darling best friend Monkey says. (Monkey is a red-and-white-striped sock monkey, for the record.) Clearly Timothy must become a superhero, and in short order he rescues a falling elephant, helps an old lady with her groceries, frees a princess from a tipping tower, drags an alligator back to the zoo, and other such heroic escapades. (Nearly all of this action is accomplished on one spread: Illustrators will notice the efficiency of Ms. Schwarz's comic-book-like boxes, while writers will see that none of Timothy's adventures are described in the text, and the charm of the whole is increased immensely by Monkey's supportive asides.)
As Timothy and Monkey head home for the night, they meet a tired bear who needs to get back to the forest to hibernate. Timothy graciously volunteers to carry him there, but as he turns to leave the forest, he realizes Monkey is trapped underneath the snoring bear! All that can be seen of him is his little white-tipped tail, and when Timothy tries to rescue him --
The pajamas lose their super strength! What can Timothy do?
It is at this point that, every single time I read this book, I have to stop and say Monkey's next line aloud:
That is British pluck, my friends, and also the cutest thing ever. Except for what Timothy says next: "'Oh no!' sobbed Timothy. 'My monkey is being hibernated on by a bear, and I can't go to sleep without him!'" Poor Timothy! (Writers: Note that despite Timothy's super-smallbeast abilities, he still has the emotional needs and insecurities of the book's target audience, and Ms. Schwarz has now both provided wish-fulfillment through his adventures and kept him real in his fears.)
But the elephant lady whom Timothy helped earlier happens to be passing by, and with a great trumpet call, she summons the old lady, the princess, the alligator, and everyone else who benefited from his assistance. (Illustrators: Observe that the design of the elephant's call -- a great red lightning bolt slashing diagonally across the spread with the words "COME AND HELP TIMOTHY!" -- visually echoes and reverses the design of the elephant lady's first appearance, where she cried, "SOMEBODY HELP MEEE!") They come running, and with a "ONE! TWO! THREE!" they pull Monkey loose from the bear. ("FREE as a bird!" Monkey says.) This is a wonderful story development, for rather than Timothy having to dig for renewed strength in himself, as has been done in children's books two hundred times over, he finds strength in his friends, as we all do every day; and it subtly makes the point that regular people (and elephants and alligators) working together can do as much as fantasy superheroes.
The elephant lady takes them all home, where "Timothy's mother shook her head when she saw the state of his pajamas." And of course, as Timothy falls asleep, she sits down to fix them "better than ever." The very last picture could be Timothy's dream, or his next adventure, and it's the perfect pendant piece for this wonderful, good-humored little book.
Timothy came to us through the editor Alison Green, who has her own imprint at our sister company Scholastic UK. Alison is a children's-books rock star in the UK for editing The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler among many other lovely picture books. (Editors in the UK usually specialize in either picture books or novels, in contrast to the United States, where we hardcover editors tend to be jacks-of-all-children's-book-trades.) Since I used to oversee the publication of all foreign imports for our imprint, I was put in charge of the U.S. edition of Timothy, but Viviane and Alison made such a perfect book that I had very little to do editorially besides remove the U's from "favourite" and turn the single-quote marks to doubles. Still, I loved looking at it every single time -- if only for the pleasure of saying "Fear not!" as quoted above -- and I'm immensely proud of the finished product. (If you see the book in person, note the special uncoated paper the interiors are printed on, and contrast that to the smooth, heavy paper of, say, The Light of the World; it's a subtle difference, but this is more right for Ms. Schwarz's easy, breezy watercolors, and I think it again underlines the child-friendliness of this book.)
Timothy was published earlier this month and has already received two starred reviews. I adore it mightily for the charm of its writing, illustration, and story, its effortless insight into childhood emotions, and Monkey's boundless enthusiasm; and I hope you become boundlessly enthusiastic about it too.
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* I admit I do not know if baby seals are actually child-friendly. Approach at your own risk.