Philip & Erin Stead – A Sick Day for Amos McGee (Roaring Book Press, 2010)
A Sick Day for Amos McGee is undoubtedly one of the finest picture books, if not the very finest, I have read. It is the most incredibly nice book, perfect in its naivety and beauty.
It is a simple story about the friendship between a kindly old zookeeper named Amos McGee and various animals at the City Zoo. Its characters are of the most endearing sort: the pensive elephant with whom Amos plays chess, the self-satisfied tortoise who Amos races daily, the nervous but sincere owl who is read storybooks because he is afraid of the dark, and, most of all, Amos himself.
As soon as he appears, stretching his arms as climbs from his bed, you can not help but smile at his quirky charm. From his pea-green three-piece suit, falling short at the ankles, to his balding head and gentle smile, everything about Amos exudes a sense of modest contentment and honesty. All his efforts go into caring for the animals and their friendship is the only reward he would ever want.
The illustrations, graceful pencil drawings and woodblock printings with sparing use of colour, have at once both gaiety and pathos. And small delights, such as a miniature bird strolling cheerily to work in his striped necktie or a weary daffodil drooping out of a recycled milk bottle, give added richness.
In his brilliant little article, ‘Tremendous Trifles’, G. K. Chesterton compared the writing of Rudyard Kipling, which is full of foreign cultures and the world’s great wonders, with his own, which is ‘an idle diary of such off things as I have fallen over by accident, in walking in a very limited area at a very limited pace.’ He continues,
we may, by focusing our attention almost fiercely on the facts actually before us, force them to turn into adventures; force them to give up their meaning and reveal their mysterious purpose. The purpose of the Kipling literature is to show how many extraordinary things a man may see if he is active and strides from continent to continent… But the object of my school is to show how many extraordinary things even a lazy and ordinary man may see if he can spur himself to the single activity of seeing.
A Sick Day for Amos McGee, despite featuring an elephant, penguin and rhinoceros, lies firmly within the Chesterton school. The thrill it offers is not in the exoticism of the creatures, but rather in their acute ordinariness, and the irony that such ordinariness should be found in the guise of an exotic animal. In this it is a world reminiscent of the Hundred Acre Wood, where bears and tigers are consumed with modest bothers and fascinations rather than eating naughty children (for instance).
It is a reflection of our thinking that ‘common’ is synonymous for both ordinariness as well as vulgarity. But in A Sick Day for Amos McGee that which is common is neither dull nor base, but beautiful and dignified. There is real pleasure to in catching a bus or sharing a pot of tea, and real treasure in simple friendship.