Book Review: THE BOYS

The Boys by Jeff Newman

Simon & Schuster Books for Children, 2010

Recommended for ages 4 and up

It’s tough being the new kid.  For lots of children who move to a new town or city, it’s hard to make new friends.  There are already groups, cliques, established.  How do you break in?  How to find your place?  With (almost) no words, Newman’s retro-style gouache and ink illustrations tell the story of a new kid just trying to be one of the boys.

Our main character has just moved to a big city, as we learn from the very beginning. On the title page and continuing through the copyright page we see a truck heading right into the story and later being unloaded as our hero carries a box up a flight of stairs.  Sticking out of the top of the moving box is the handle of a baseball bat; a bit of foreshadowing as our boy looks downward with a slight frown- perhaps he is already feeling apprehensive about this new place.  Page one contains only one image, the word “Tuesday” in all caps.  The day names are the only words that Newman employs.

We watch as our main character suits up in an oversized baseball cap, and takes his glove, bat, and ball to the park.  The park, which could easily be Central Park in New York, is intimidating, to say the least.  There spread in front of him is a huge expanse of grass, a baseball game with eleven kids already in progress, and giant gray buildings hulking behind them.  Newman uses thick green curly cues to suggest a line of trees.  Also used on the title page, this had the effect of moving the truck along, propelling our character, and us, into the story.  On this first double-page spread in which the boy surveys the park, it is more reminiscent of a barbed wire fence.  The boy stands to the left of the gutter.  That space- across the divide, across the grass, to all those unfamiliar kids- it is simply impossible to cross.  But there, on the left-hand side, (on his side of the gutter), is a bench with several old men.  Perhaps our hero isn’t quite up to joining the baseball game.  But, there are possibilities here.

As we progress through the week, we see the boy abandon his baseball gear and instead begin to mimic the style and actions of the old men on the park bench.  He feeds the pigeons (much to the chagrin one particularly grumpy old dude), slicks back his hair, dons a homemade pair of pink plaid pants, and leans on a large stick.  If he can’t be one of the boys his own age, he does a pretty fair job of being one of the old boys.  Or, so he thinks.

The four old men quickly realize they must help this kid get back to being…. a kid.  The men begin acting like children-  hanging from the monkey bars, riding the plastic seahorse spring toy, bicycling passed an astonished, then outraged, young boy.  In an incredibly clever composition, Newman shows the old men in a tight circle next the boy as they flip a coin.  One of the men (a slightly rotund gentleman) has his back to the boy and his body blocks the center of the park bench.  On the facing page, we see the men move away and the large gentlemen moves with them off the page, revealing a present on the bench that they have left for the boy; a helmet and a bat.  The boy, after some thought, joins the old men’s game and hits one right out of the park.  A few days later, the boy finally works up the courage to join the boys his own age, where he smashes another homer and his hoisted upon their shoulders in victory.  His old boys, well, except for the ultra grumpy one, cheer him on from the bleachers.

Newman’s work is not just sweet or funny (both of which it is, indeed.)  It’s incredibly smart.  His compositions, his use of color, his ability to make a single curve or line convey both emotion and movement is remarkable.  This is a wordless book with a strong narrative.  He sets up each page like a still in a film.  His illustrations are cinematic and the page turns posses flawless comedic timing.  Something in Newman’s style- his thick black lines, splotchy color application, use of shape- that reminded me a bit of certain 1960′s ad illustrations (see here and here and here.)

Besides the wonderful artwork, I loved the story.  I admire how kid-focused it remains.  Other than the old men, we don’t see any other adults.   As far as the boy’s parents- a rear-end poking out of the moving truck is all we see.  I love that!  More picture books should chuck mom and dad.  This allows the boy to go off and experience all the highs and lows of being in a new place.  He confronts his problem head on, tries on a solution, fails, and tries again.  This is magic.  This is what picture books for children should be.

The Boys is refreshing, clever, and smile-making.  I haven’t tried it out in storytime yet, so if anyone has, I’d love to know how it went!

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