Monday, September 17, 2012

Cecil The Pet Glacier

By Matthea Harvey
Illustrated by Giselle Potter
$17.99, ages 4-8, 32 pages

Ruby can't relate to her eccentric parents and she's determined to be nothing like them -- until one day an offbeat little pet melts his way into Ruby's heart and shows her that being quirky is really okay.

In this wonderful, droll picture book, Harvey tells the story of straight-laced Ruby who gets stuck with a tiny glacier for a pet, when all she really wanted was a dog, something typical, not at all strange like all the stuff her parents like.

Ruby has always felt uptight about her parents' odd professions and unusual past times. Her dad, Mr. Small, sculpts topiaries for a living and is so into it that in the off-season, when he has nothing to do, he trims his beard to look like a crocodile. Her mother, a tiara designer, is equally passionate and can't resist wearing sparkly bands wherever she goes.

Neither one of the Smalls seems to care what anyone thinks, or perhaps they're just oblivious to outside opinion. Either way, Mr. and Mrs. Small blissfully live according to their own whims and in plain view of everyone. So why doesn't Ruby want to live this way too?

On warm summer nights, Ruby sees her parents tangoing cheek-to-cheek across their yard and holes up inside the house and cringes. She prays that no one from school walks by, then pulls the curtains shut and sits down to play with The Three Jennifers, her identical dolls.

Each doll looks exactly like Ruby, strict in look and subdued, with a plain black headband, a brown pinafore and brown shoes, almost like a poster child for self-denial.

And so days go on just like this, with Ruby resisting being eccentric and her parents doing whatever makes them happy.

Then one day, Mr. Small asks Ruby where she wants to go on vacation and tosses up the idea of going to China to see a rosemary plant trimmed into the shape of a mini rhino. "No way," Ruby mutters. But all Mr. Small hears is "Norway," and soon they're in a plane headed there.

En route, Ruby's parents gleefully lob Ping-Pong balls back and forth on their foldout trays, as Ruby looks warily down at her family's passport pictures. Though they look alike, she wonders how they could ever be related -- and realizes that feeling this way has made her lonely.

Perhaps what she needs is a pet. So she asks her parents on the plane if she can get one and being the upbeat people that they are, they say of course. Only now Mr. and Mrs. Small think Ruby should get glow-in-the-dark jellyfish or a flea circus, when all Ruby wants is something cuddly, like a dog.

Being so far apart on what kind of pet to get, the issue is left hanging and they arrive in Norway. There, a tour guide takes them snowmobiling to see a glacier and it begins calving, shedding little bits of itself. Suddenly one of those bits floats away, slides toward Ruby and begins following her like a stray dog.

Ruby, however, isn't at all charmed by the affectionate little lump of ice, and before she knows it, everyone has assumed the little glacier is hers for keeps and Ruby feels like she has no say in the matter.

First Mr. Small asks Ruby to name the glacier, then the tourist guide suggest she call it Cecil after his glacial parent Cecilsmater and when it's time to fly home, her parents slip it into a cooler to carry onto the plane without even asking Ruby if she wants him.

Once home, the glacier isn't so easy to care for. Before going to bed in the cooler, Cecil must eat a dish of pebbles and bathe in ice water, and he always needs grooming. As he slides on the ground, twigs and gum get stuck underneath him and create a mess.

Even though Cecil follows her everywhere, Ruby feels no attachment to him and closes him out of her room, inviting only The Three Jennifers inside. Poor Cecil tries to nudge the door open and ends up leaving a wet patch under the doorknob before sliding off to bed.

Then one day, Cecil follows Ruby to school and risks everything for something Ruby cares about and Ruby realizes that it doesn't matter that he's peculiar -- and really, it's okay that her parents are too.

Harvey's premise is as quirky as Ruby's parents and could easily have seemed over-the-top, had she not developed it in such a clever, funny way -- by playing the extremes of the situation to comical effect.

Ruby's life is not just odd, it's glaringly so. Her parents parade their peculiarities for everyone to see and even Ruby's house and yard draw attention to themselves. The house is painted in pink and yellow stripes and the yard is overrun by topiaries that look like giant green animals.

Ruby is completely overwhelmed by all the oddities that surround her and becomes preoccupied worrying about what her classmates think of her parents -- and by association, her.

So she rebels in a way. She denies herself all sense of individuality, wearing plain, austere clothes similar to what Amish girls wear. And the funny thing is that, in doing this she makes herself odd too.

And now, on top of all of her troubles, along comes a bizarre little pet that just won't leave her alone. This poor girl! How is she ever going to keep her sanity?

Perhaps Ruby just needs to relax a little and accept the love of this little guy no matter what he looks like.

Potter, who has been a favorite illustrator of mine ever since I saw her work in Candace Fleming's 2002 When Agnes Caws, does an amazing job capturing the subtle changes of emotion in Ruby's face as curious things go on around her.

At first Ruby's face is very staid and lost-looking, but as she allows herself to accept the absurdities of her life, Potter adds just enough twinkle in her eyes to make her whole spirit lighten up.

Ruby, like many of Potter's characters, has a saintly look about her face as she regards things very calmly and quietly, but also very deeply, and interestingly Potter studied the paintings of saints in Rome as an art student.

Potter, who also had an unconventional childhood of her own as the daughter of traveling puppeteers, seems to have an intuitive sense of how Ruby feels, how kids like her feel in general.

Though Ruby's situation is far out, many children can relate to feeling, at one time or other, embarrassed by their parents and wishing they were nothing like them -- which makes this book not only relatable but hilarious.

This is a terrific book for helping children let go of inhibitions. It shows that you can't control what others do or what others think of you -- you just have to jump in and be a part of life, and the rest will work its way out.

No comments:

Post a Comment