Review: Tell Me a Tattoo Story by Alison McGhee
Tell Me a Tattoo Story
By Alison McGhee
Illustrated by Eliza Wheeler
I’m going to begin this review with an admission I never thought I would make at the beginning of a picture book review:
I don’t have any tattoos.
More and more, this makes me an exception. Nowadays, rare is the person who gets through life un-inked. While tattoos have been popping up more and more in popular children’s picture books (the tatted-up dude on the Last Stop on Market Street bus being a recent, notable example), there haven’t been many books that focus exclusively on the topic. In fact, I believe Tell Me a Tattoo Story is the first. But it’s not just noteworthy because it happens to be #1 – it’s noteworthy because it works.
You wanna see my tattoos?
Why, little man, you always want to see my tattoos. Here we go then.
It’s a scene you can imagine – one that has no doubt taken place countless times: a boy asks his father about his tattoos. Dad obliges, pointing out each one and explaining why it’s there. Each tattoo holds meaning – the words “Be Kind” that remind him of his father, the image that represents his military service, the ferris wheel that reminds him of the day he met his future wife. But one is his favorite – the little heart with the birthdate of his son.
This is a book that could have gone wrong in so many places. A hipsterish “Ain’t tats cool?” vibe would have been, I don’t know, too narcissistic or something. A “Hey, tattoos are forever, kid: think before you ink” angle would have been preachy. Smartly, McGhee goes for heartfelt and hits the mark, making a trendy topic universal by focusing not on the tattoos themselves, but the stories they represent.
The story is told entirely by the father – his is the only voice we hear. Since he is in conversation with his son throughout, this occasionally leads to an awkward one-sided exchange, as the father has to carry the dialog for both characters.
The illustrations, created with india ink and watercolors, are a nice match for the text. Wheeler’s delicate linework looks like something you might find decorating someone’s arm (or back or leg or name your designated tattoo location) . The colors – pale blues, reds, and yellows – provide a nice touch of softness.
So, as I said earlier, no tattoos here. And because of that, I realize my endorsement might actually carry a bit more weight. Rest assured I’m not drawn to this book because it specifically reflects my life, but because it’s a well-crafted book. One that I’m glad to see out in the world.
Review copy from the publisher.
Filed under: Reviews
About Travis Jonker
Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.
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