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Before the American Library Association picked its big prize winners this year, there had been a flurry of publishing discussion about whether the Newbery Award was going too often to obscure titles with little kid appeal. On Monday, when the prize went The Graveyard Book, that criticism must have seemed roundly answered. A toddler reared by all the haints in a cemetery? Any kid who has trouble endorsing that premise probably stays home on Halloween night to eat Brussels sprouts and practice the multiplication tables. Move over, Holes, there’s a new Newbery favorite in town.
And what is an old favorite by Neil Gaiman and his frequent collaborator Dave McKean? Coraline (the much-anticipated film version opens next week) and The Wolves in the Walls are acknowledged masterpieces. But if you want to get back to the first children’s cult favorite by these two, you’ll look for The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish.
There’s none of Gaiman’s trademark horror in this book, but it did establish some of his other best practices. He plays off brilliantly from classic children’s lit—in this case the folktales in which characters achieve some desired object in a roundelay of trades. (The Graveyard Book owes a debt to The Jungle Book, and Coraline is a latter-day Alice.) His stories’ logic is always the logic of children: mostly literal and easily distracted, but at the right moments prescient, shrewd or wise. His tone is an uncannily good blend of lean-in-closer traditional storytelling and postmodern hipness. The Day I Swapped opens with the Seussian echo of “One day my mom went out and left me at home with just my little sister and my dad” and Sis gets the nay-sayer role that Ted Geisel gave to his famous goldfish. Dialogue appears in thought bubbles, but with the “I said”s and “he said”s scribbled underneath. McKean’s energetic and atmospheric artwork mixes pen-and-ink drawings, comic book framing, collage and a palette of orange and amber washes. Every page has enough going on to send a reader down the rabbit hole and that’s even before a giant white rabbit named Galveston appears on page 42. Its ears are at 11 and 3.
It’s easy to imagine that Gaiman’s ears are similiarly cocked—how else could he be hearing the great stuff that he’s so consistently delivered to wised-up and eager kids?