Not so very long ago, I wrote a semi-scathing review of one of Jerry Spinelli’s books. And when I did, I may also have said that he is actually supposed to be a writer of many good books (or, I may not have – it depends on how charitable I was feeling at the time). Anyways. When I said (or possibly did not say) that Jerry Spinelli has written other books that are good, I didn’t have Mama Seeton’s Whistle in mind because: (a) I don’t think of Spinelli as a children’s author, but as a YA author, and (b) this book probably hadn’t been published yet. It might have been (copyright 2015, and my previous review was about six months ago, so just inside of 2015), but it might not.
So far, this review is not terribly certain. Bear with me – it’s been that kind of week.
Mama Seeton’s Whistle is a stolid little story. Wait – do I mean “solid”, or “stolid”? I think I mean sTolid, and Google search agrees with me (“calm, dependable, and showing little emotion or animation”). Other than the fact that “stolid” is usually used to refer to people, of course.
The story is calm and dependable. It’s not silly, or terribly clever. It doesn’t make me happy or sad or giggly or excited. That’s not to say that it is emotionLESS or without animation. There’s a lot of emotion, in a quétaine and Apple-Pie kind of way. Heartwarming, with that uncomfortable feeling that I used to have as a teenager watching certain events. You know – that feeling. The feeling that whatever is happening is just not very cool. It lacks finesse. It’s slightly cheesy. It’s all kids playing in the street, comfortably shaped grandmas and mamas, super cute grandlittles, and rowdy puppies. It’s like Dandelion Wine, but without Ray Bradbury’s skills. It delivers (calm and dependable, remember?), but is just a little too pat. So much, say I, for Spinelli.
LeUyen Pham, on the other hand, is terrific, and I encourage you to follow the link to her website. Her illustrations are great. They are busy, filled with motion and interest and details that will fascinate kids and have them re-reading the story just to look and see what everyone is doing. No wonder it says “art by” instead of “illustrated by” on the cover. She did great research into the different eras and times, so that clothing, cars, and even haircuts change over time (except, of course, Mama Seeton’s clothing and haircut, which stay the same…because the archetypal mother does not move ahead with the times but lets the times move on ahead without her).
I like that Mama Seeton’s kids are in interracial relationships so that the grandkids include mixed-race kids. I like that Mama Seeton’s whistle has a shape and colour that twists through the pictures to “find” the little Seetons. I like how the people in the illustrations often seem to be caught in mid-motion – the Seeton kids bursting through the door; Mama Seeton nearly falling off her couch in surprise; Sophie Seeton hugging her father from behind; various dogs and puppies in different states of excitement. And I especially like that LeUyen Pham supports 826 Valencia. It cements her in my mind as being very, very, cool – not quétaine, at all.
Rating: B- for the story, but a solid A for the illustrations. Since the book is a picture book, I think that the final call is B+.
Reading Ages: Our 20 month-old is starting to be very interested in stories where the illustrations have a lot going on. He’s big into Barbapapa’s illustrations, but doesn’t have patience to hear the story out while we go through the book. So I would say about 18 months for looking at illustrations together. For actual story interest, I would say probably more like 2-5 or so.
Anything else?: Yup. Jerry Spinelli, you’re on notice. That’s two strikes already.