Monday, April 04, 2011

A reader writes to me about Jon Scieszka's TRUCKSGIVING

Amongst the email I received this morning is one from Danielle, who wrote to ask if I'd seen Jon Scieszka's Trucksgiving.  While at the local library earlier today, I picked up a copy of it.

Like The Berenstain Bear's Give Thanks, Scieszka's Trucksgiving is new; the publication year is 2010. The illustrators are David Shannon, Loren Long, and David Gordon.  Trucksgiving is one book in Scieszka's "Ready To Roll" series of easy readers published by Simon and Schuster.

On the back cover is the website for the series:  I typed it into the search window on my computer, and WOW! Way cool. I can see lot of kids really liking the site. Truck horns blare, and Jack greets me, saying welcome. Constantly playing in the background is the low sound of a motor. Rolling my cursor over the other trucks on the page, Jack introduces each one.

If you study gender, you might want to take a look at the gender of the trucks. The pink garbage truck is "Gabriella Garbage Truck." She picks up garbage. The blue dump truck is "Dump Truck Dan." More analysis might not hold up, but some of it looks to me to be rather....  stereotypical.

The white ambulance is "Rescue Rita." There's a green wrecker (truck with a wrecker ball) named "Wrecker Rosie" (her wrecking ball is pink). There's bios for each truck, and a lot of things kids can do... listen to sounds, print out coloring pages...

Clicking on the "Parents Section" opens a "Grown Ups Section" that says the site is about fun and games, and that there is little to read on the site.

Some might say the title of the book "Trucksgiving" is clever. It reflects Scieszka's play with words. I like word play, but not in this case. The word play is at the expense of a specific population. Scieszka did that before in Me Oh Maya, one of the books in the Time Warp Trio. I've written about two other books Long illustrated. If you're interested, see what I said about his illustrations for Barack Obama's Of Thee I Sing, and, Watty Piper's The Little Engine That Could.

On the first double-paged spread of Trucksgiving, we learn that many years ago, "the first trucks came to Trucktown" (part of the spread is used on the cover). In the foreground are two trucks: Jack Truck (the star of the series) and Gabriella Garbage Truck. He's wearing a black hat with a buckle on it and she's wearing what I think is supposed to be a white bonnet. They've just come off a ship. Beside the ramp is a rock---Plymouth Rock, perhaps?

On the next double-paged spread, we see Payloader Pete and Dump Truck Dan scooping and dumping dirt. They're both wearing black hats with buckles. Turning the page, we see Cement Mixer Mike in a black hat and Grader Kat (she's described on the website as "sensitive, creative, and mature") in a bonnet. They are making roads. On the next double-paged spread we see four cabins on a scroll. Above the scroll the text reads:
They built Trucktown. And they saw that it was good.
Somehow, "they saw that it was good" reminds me of Genesis. Was that deliberate on Scieszka's part? A gesture towards the Puritan's spirituality?

On the next double-paged spread, the trucks wanted a way thank every truck that helped. On that page, the trucks are gathered around a long table that is set with plates full of nuts and bolts and oil cans. Here, for the first time, we see a truck wearing feathers:

"Big Rig" is the truck chosen to be an Indian. His bio page (on the website) says:
Big Rig is a bully. He's a tailgating, horn blasting, black exhaust spewing, license expired, outlaw. And those might be the nicest things you could say about him. The best thing to do with this guy is steer clear.
Gabriella and Big Rig
Instead of round eyes like all the other trucks have, he's got rectangular ones with orange instead of white eyeballs.

On the next two double-paged spreads, Big Rig glares at Lucy the fire truck when she suggests they spray water to celebrate, and, he glares at Gabriella when she suggests they smash garbage.

On the next double-paged spread, Izzy the ice cream truck suggests they eat ice cream. Next to him is another truck wearing feathers. This is Monster Truck Max. His bio (on the website) reads:
Max is everything you would expect a monster truck to be. Especially ACTIVE! He is oversized, jacked up, and nitro-boosted to the MAX! He's always getting his wild self into trouble and it's a good thing he's got friends like Jack and Dan to help him along the way. 
On that page, Izzy is shown on the table. The plates of nuts and bolts are flying about. Was it Max's nitro that upset things?!

For the sake of comparison, I'm including bios for Jack Truck:
Jack is a prankster action hero! He is active, rowdy, messy, loud and goofy. He is the fastest truck and the best-at-truck-sports truck. Jack's work is to play. And he plays, and plays, and plays, and plays.
And Dump Truck Dan's bio...
Dan is Jack Truck's best friend. He is one strong truck and loves to show off that strength, whether its pushing rocks, loading up dirt, or getting into trouble with Jack. 
Max doesn't have the scary appearance that Big Rig does. Max has eyes like the others (round and white).  He is "wild" and perhaps it is his "wild" characteristic that led the illustrators to put feathers on him. Feathers on the bully, and feathers on the wild guy.

The story continues with Jack suggesting they have a race each year instead of the ideas posed by others. Big Rig and Max aren't shown objecting. The final page shows Rita (the ambulance) crossing the finish line, dressed as a turkey.

Overall, the book is stereotypical.

Scieszka's language play is troubling, and the story itself doesn't quite make sense to me. The trucks want to do something to say thanks to all the trucks who helped build Trucktown. The two Indian characters object to ideas put forth. Why? I'm stretching to say that maybe these two "Indian" characters are making a statement about the entire idea of Thanksgiving and how it is observed in the United States.

But, that is wishful thinking. Instead, we have two male trucks. One is a bully and the other is a wild guy. They shut down options put forth by the two female trucks.  

On the website, Szieszka says that the stories are ones that reflect the ways that 4 year old kids act. Perhaps, but it still doesn't make sense to me. Have you read it? Does it work for you?

1 comment:

jpm said...

Great, just great. "Big Rig" -- chosen to be an Indian -- is a bully, an outlaw, and "the best thing to do with this guy is steer clear."
And then there's Monster Truck Max in feathers, with his "wild self".
Here's one Grandma/Great-Aunt who will not be sharing this website or the book/s with Native grandsons and greatnephews. Jon Scieszka must have written people like me off as a potential market.

And as for naming the Berenstain Bears' turkey Squanto -- what a repulsive thing to put into a children's book. I can't even get enough distance on that to frame it in postcolonialist terms. That was not a mindless off-hand choice resulting in an unfortunate metaphor; the author/s had to do some thinking to come up with that. So I'll just call it sadistic, revolting, and worth a letter-writing campaign to the publisher.