By Victoria Chang
Illustrated by Marla Frazee
Beach Lane Books (Simon & Schuster)
Rarely do I read something and think, “Wait. You can do that in a picture book?” But that was exactly my experience reading Is Mommy?, one of the boldest, bravest, and most straighforwardly honest picture books I’ve recently seen.
Is mommy what?
The title begs this response, doesn’t it?
Through a series of simple questions (posed by the narrator) and answers (by children), we begin to get a sense of what’s going on here:
The insults continue, leading to this line, so over the top one can’t help but laugh:
Do you love your short, ugly, mean, boring, old, messy mommy?
Followed by this natural reply:
Look, if I had someone following me around most of the day barking out commands and constantly correcting my errors, I’d be a little irritated too. I do believe I might want to lash out verbally on occasion. And kids do. Or if they don’t, they’ve fantasized about it. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t love behind those words too. While I think some adult readers will be taken aback by a book where moms are initially presented in a negative light, I think kids will have a different reaction – the feeling of vicarious glee that comes with crossing the line again and again.
Here Caldecott Honor winner Frazee is at her most artistically spare, using tempera paint on Manila paper. She creates a cast of child and mother characters, each one rendered in black brushstrokes and bright primary or secondary color. These illustrations, devoid of any background imagery serve the text well. The words carry a lot of weight, and Frazee is up to the challenge, smartly going big and bold.
Although it ends warmly, Is Mommy? contains enough “you can’t talk to me like that!” envelope-pushing to make grown-ups squirm. Somewhere, Maurice Sendak is smiling.
Review copy from the publisher.