Tuesday, December 14, 2021

A Giant Mess by Jeffrey Ebbeler

Alec Chunn is a Children's Librarian at Tualatin Public Library. He was a member of the 2021 Caldecott committee and co-founded the mock Stonewall Book Award blog, Medal on My Mind.

While early reader comics are far from new, the explosion of titles from publisher after publisher has certainly caught my attention this year. Betsy Bird has already sung the well-deserved praises of Kraken Me Up, but I submit yet another Jeffrey Ebbeler book for consideration: A Giant Mess. I’m more than okay with the idea of both books getting some Geisel love (#TeamEbbeler) but, admittedly, I’m all in on A Giant Mess. It’s playful, funny, and—best of all—an example of brilliant visual storytelling. The story is simple: a white child named Molly refuses to clean their room. Exasperated Mom tells Molly to pick up the “giant mess.” Outside, a green giant child named Jack runs amok in the city playing with all the “cool toys” (read: people, buildings, animals, etc.). Chaos ensues until, much like Molly’s mom, Jack’s parents call for Jack to clean up. You know who else asks Jack to clean up? Molly! Their perfectly parallel plots converge and tidiness is achieved. Kind of. In defining “distinguished,” the Geisel award criteria notes how “plot, sensibility, and rhythm” contribute to a “stimulating and successful reading experience.” Cleaning up after playing is part of many children’s routines, but Ebbeler makes that familiar plot exciting through humor and careful pacing. As early as the cover image, the hand-lettered title cues the word giant’s double meaning. The cover image also sets up Ebbeler’s clever use of scale that drives the page turns once Jack is officially introduced. Molly and Jack change size depending on whose perspective is being taken (a giant eye here; a thumb there). The paneling is unusual and somewhat sophisticated, eschewing typical grid block paneling for varied panels that become part of the setting or pop out over splash pages. Even with the unpredictability, the art is never hard to follow. Obviously, the Geisel award isn’t about art but, rather, how text and art work together to support beginning readers. With fewer than 70 unique words and plenty of repetition, the text offers a limited vocabulary. All words are one or two syllables. Most pages only have a few speech bubbles and use fewer than five words per sentence, so there’s a sense of balance and consistency. Repeated phrases such as “I will not” and “This is too hard” stylistically connect Molly and Jack’s characters and give readers a chance to build confidence. Art? Check. Text? Check. My only quip is that some of the dialogue appears outside of speech bubbles, which may be confusing to readers new to the comics medium. But, hey, that’s a small mark on the Geisel scorecard of this otherwise giant contender.

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