Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Mixed-Up Truck by Stephen Savage

Images from
Today's post comes to us from Katya Schapiro, Senior Children's Librarian at the Bay Ridge Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. She served on the 2016 Geisel Award committee, and has just joined the Quicklists Consulting Committee.

Steven Savage, author and illustrator of last year's Geisel Honor winning Supertruck, is back with another anthropomorphized tale of trucks. The Mixed-Up Truck is a hard-working but somewhat clueless cement mixer who, shades of Amelia Bedelia, just can’t quite get a handle on the correct execution of his job responsibilities. His efforts to “Mix up some powdery white cement” result in some tasty mishaps and not a little embarrassment, and it takes several tries until he and his fellow trucks can make a building.

Ah, vehicles. The superheroes of the toddler world. The draft animals of the city kid’s dreams. Those big, strong, active machines, with their distinctive noises, easily identified specialties, and 'community helper' vibe, are eternally and justifiably popular with young readers. In The Mixed-Up Truck, Savage employs many of the techniques that made Supertruck such a successful title for beginning readers, including large font text, short sentences and phrases, and a repetitive and episodic storytelling style.

Savage's signature digital art, which features bright colors, geometric cityscapes, and uncluttered (though rarely white) space is engaging, 'individually distinct,' and relaxing to readers in need of narrative clarity and visual rest. The characters themselves (the trucks) are cute and friendly looking, while still being easy to identify. Factory and construction site signage (“Danger,” “Sugar”) provide additional clues to the storytelling, allowing the savvy reader to get a jump on the plot reveals. Perhaps in honor of the 'powder' theme, nearly all of the illustrations are shaded in a stippled, powdery airbrush style.

The themes of The Mixed-Up Truck are those of perseverance in the face of initial failure, of getting up and trying again, and of using reading skills to succeed—perfect analogues for the struggles of a beginning reader. The repetitive unfolding of the story introduces new words slowly and builds reader confidence.

So far, so good. But I have some concerns as well. Throughout the book, the line breaks are built in every four or five words, rather than corresponding to sentences or even always to phrases. This works reasonably intuitively in sentences such as “All the other trucks/were hard at work,” or “The dump truck/was dumping,” but can get a little harder to follow in more complex sentences, such as “You got mixed up again,” said the/trucks,” or “The cement mixer mixed up/ the white powder, added a/little water, and presto!”

The juxtaposition of text and supportive illustration is also uneven, with some spreads reflecting and enhancing the text, and some offering very little information, or only supporting part of the page’s text. The plot, while building satisfactorily, relies on the assumption of knowledge that may or may not be in place (concrete is mixed from powder, sugar and flour make cake and icing), and might stretch the conceptual abilities of a reader who is already pushing their reading skills.

The Mixed-Up Truck is a great addition to Savage's vehicular adventure books, and truly shines when it shows the beauty of industrial buildings and the NYC skyline. While it's not perfectly calibrated as a beginning reader, I have no doubt that many readers young and old will appreciate its idiosyncratic storyline and powdery jokes.

1 comment:

  1. What really threw this one out of the running for me was the use of a cursive font on the sign for sugar. There is nothing in the text to say what each white powder is. Understanding that it is flour that makes a cake, sugar the icing, cement, and then soap powder is done entirely through the signs in the illustrations. To include an important piece of information in a text that is likely unreadable by most kids under third or fourth grade makes me think this is more of a picture book, intended to be mediated by an adult reader.

    While my child knew that flour makes a cake ("what about the eggs and stuff?") and sugar makes icing, I can see how many others would not, and we did have to have a long conversation about soap powder, as this was a new concept to him that he really struggled with, viewing soap as mostly a liquid product.

    We must have read this book a hundred times, and I think it has great kid appeal, just not for the early reader crowd.