One-Minute Book Reviews

June 7, 2008

Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read — Jeff Brown and Tomi Ungerer’s ‘Flat Stanley’

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:23 am
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Stanley was different before different was the new normal

Flat Stanley. By Jeff Brown. Pictures by Tomi Ungerer. HarperCollins, 44 pp., varied prices and editions. Ages 4 and up (for reading aloud).

Flat Stanley. By Jeff Brown. Pictures by Scott Nash. HarperTrophy, 65 pp., $4.99, paperback. Ages 4 and up (for reading aloud), ages 6–9 (for independent readers).

By Janice Harayda

Long before bookstores and libraries abounded with books about children of all shapes and sizes, there was Flat Stanley, an ordinary boy who woke up one morning and found that he was flat. Stanley is flat — “four feet fall, about a foot wide, and half an inch thick” – because a bulletin board fell on him while he was sleeping.

He wasn’t hurt, so nobody is particularly troubled by this – least of all Stanley. “When Stanley got used to being flat, he enjoyed it.” Stanley finds that he can slide under closed doors and slip through the bars of a sidewalk grate to retrieve his mother’s favorite ring, which fell into a shaft. He can fly like a kite on the end of a string held by his younger brother, Arthur. And when thieves keep breaking into an art museum, he becomes a hero after helping the authorities with their plan to catch the robbers, which requires him to dress up like a shepherdess and be displayed in a frame. But after becoming a celebrity, Stanley starts getting teased by children who make fun of his flatness. He cries in bed at night because he wants to return to normal. And he doesn’t know how he can, until his sympathetic brother comes up with a creative idea that works.

The first edition of Flat Stanley has wonderful drawings by the French-born artist Tomi Ungerer who, on every page, raises Jeff Brown’s humor to a higher level. Few living artists can make visual satire work as well for young children as Ungerer, a winner of the the highest international prize for children’s-book illustration, the Hans Christian Andersen Award. Most children won’t know that he is gently tweaking 18th-century pastoral paintings of the school of Fragonard when they see Stanley, affixed to a wall, in ringlets and a dress with a shepherdess’s crook in hand. They don’t need to know it, because the picture is so funny in itself. Brown occasionally pitches his humor more to adults than to children, but Ungerer never makes that mistake.

Scott Nash’s cartoonish pictures for the chapter book don’t come close to Ungerer’s – it’s the difference between table wine and champagne. But the chapter book, which reproduces Brown’s text almost word-for-word, has its place. Because of the incident involving the museum thieves, some parents might hesitate to read Flat Stanley to preschoolers who are still worried about monsters under the bed. They might prefer to wait until children can read it on their own and, not incidentally, go to sleep without spraying down the bedroom with a water bottle labeled “Monster Repellent.” In that case, they can use the chapter book (which has sequels I haven’t seen).

Flat Stanley has a message that is expressed most directly by Stanley’s mother: “It is wrong to dislike people for their shapes. Or their religion, for that matter, or the color of their skin.” But the book wears this idea so lightly – and tells such a good story – that it stands far above the many recent, dreary books that bludgeon children with worthy ideas at the expense of plot, characterization and decent art. Stanley may be flat, but his story is anything but.

Best line/picture: All of Tomi Ungerer’s pictures of Stanley in his flat incarnation, especially that image of him in a shepherdess’s costume.

Worst line/picture: Stanley’s father announces that the newspaper says a painting, a Toulouse-Lautrec, has been stolen from the Famous Museum of Art. “That probably made it easy to steal,” his wife replies. “Being too loose, I mean.” This is one of the few lines that appears in the picture book but not in the chapter book. I didn’t mind the pun, because it fits in with the playful humor throughout the text and illustrations. But the reference isn’t explained and would no doubt sail over the heads of most preschoolers.

Published: 1964 (picture book by Jeff Brown with pictures by Tomi Ungerer) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flat_Stanley and 2003, (chapter book by Jeff Brown with pictures by Scott Nash) www.harpercollinschildrens.com/HarperChildrens/Search/SearchResults.aspx?TCId=100&ST=1&SKw=flat%20stanley. More information appears on www.flatstanleyproject.com.

Furthermore: Tomi Ungerer’s site www.exopuce.fr/tomi/c_accueil_f.htm. This site is in French (and doesn’t have pictures of Stanley), but it has a button on the home page that you can click on for an English or German translation.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

13 Comments »

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  2. The bad pun in the picture book edition is a nice perk for parents of preschoolers who read countless stories to their kids, sometimes the same ones over and over. My favorite part of the book, though, is Stanley being flat enough to fit in an envelope and be mailed to visit faraway family and friends.

    Have you ever heard of Flat Stanley Projects? Many schools do this to encourage writing and study geography. Each student makes a Flat Stanley paper doll and mails it to a friend or family member. The recipient documents (with a journal, photos, etc.) the paper doll’s activities and mails it back to the sender. Often the class maps where all the Flat Stanleys have been, and shares the journals and photos.

    My first grade nephew in Austin, Texas, sent his Flat Stanley (or Flat Noah, in this case) to me three years ago, when I was living in Seattle. In his accompanying letter, he asked that I take Flat Noah to the zoo. Flat Noah and I had a blast for a week, visiting Woodland Park Zoo, the Space Needle, Pike Place Market, the Ballard Locks, and riding the monorail and ferry. I took lots of pictures with Flat Noah in the foreground, and put those with other souvenirs (brochures, postcards) in a journal with a narrative of our adventures.

    My nephew was thrilled. It was rather poignant for me as I’d been living in Seattle for 21 years at that point, but had decided to move home to Texas at the end of the year. It was a great way for me to visit some of my favorite places in Seattle before I left.

    Comment by speedytexaslibrarian — June 7, 2008 @ 9:55 am | Reply

  3. I’m with you that the editors of the new edition didn’t really need to cut that pun. And I also love the part about Stanley being mailed in an envelope.

    The Flat Stanley project sounds wonderful, and I’m so glad that you explained more about it. I have a link to it buried at the end of the review, but it’s worth listing again http://www.flatstanleyproject.com/. I didn’t say more about the project only because this review was getting a bit long.

    Thanks a million for explaining how the project works. What age children do you think would like taking part in the Flat Stanley Project? The average might be about 7-to-8. But I can see children as young as 5 or even 4 enjoying this with a little help from their parents.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — June 7, 2008 @ 11:51 am | Reply

  4. At my nephew’s school, Flat Stanley was a regular part of the first grade curriculum. I can’t see it much younger than that, because the kids are supposed to write a brief letter when they send out their paper dolls, and a lot of first graders would struggle with that, as would even more younger children. I can see the project up through about grade three.

    Comment by speedytexaslibrarian — June 7, 2008 @ 5:51 pm | Reply

  5. It sounds as though this could be a really good summer project for students who haven’t read the book in school. Thanks.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — June 7, 2008 @ 7:33 pm | Reply

  6. [...] 5. Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read. Reviews of books for children and adults appear every Saturday and sometimes include an installment in the “Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read” series. oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/07/classic-picture-books-every-child-should-read-jeff-bro… [...]

    Pingback by 8 Things You Find Only on One-Minute Book Reviews « One-Minute Book Reviews — June 17, 2008 @ 12:40 am | Reply

  7. [...] Stanley and I’ve enjoyed being reacquainted with it too. So I was delighted to come across this post by Janice Harayda of One-Minute Book Reviews. Read the comments on the post for a fascinating discussion of a game involving paper ‘flat [...]

    Pingback by The Reader Online » Links We Liked for 18 June, 2008 — June 18, 2008 @ 2:15 pm | Reply

  8. This is interesting…I just took a look at the two copies my library has of this book. I knew we had one illustrated by Ungerer and one by Nash, but my Nash version (HarperCollins, 2006, 32 pages) is an abridged picture book edition (without the pun), while the Ungerer book (Houghton Mifflin, 1993, 48 pages but only 44 with text/illustrations), is, I believe, the complete original text.

    Comment by speedytexaslibrarian — June 18, 2008 @ 4:06 pm | Reply

  9. I wonder if there is an even shorter version of the Nash that I didn’t see? I compared my Nash version line-by-line with the Ungerer. And it was almost identical (except for a few cuts like the pun). There were so few deletions that these amounted to editing more than an abridgment. And my Nash version definitely has the look of a paperback chapter book (smaller format than a picture book and with pulpy paper). It said “Fortieth Anniversary Edition” on the cover.

    So there must be an additional abridged edition I didn’t see. This is one of the big challenges of having a library-driven site like mine: I can’t always get all the books I want when I want them, even with generous use of ILLs. I’ve actually been planning to “Flat Stanley” since last fall, but my library never had both on the shelf at the same time until now.

    So I always appreciate knowing about other editions. Thanks!

    [Your 1993 edition definitely is the full original text -- it's a reprint of the first edition. Don't ever let your library throw it away. The Nash seems to be displacing the Ungerer, wonderful as it is, which is getting harder and harder to find.]

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — June 18, 2008 @ 5:49 pm | Reply

  10. The Nash I’ve got is large format, about 9×12. I can order the Nash chapter-book size in a hardbound library edition and probably will.

    I’ll be here for at least 11 more years and I’m the one who makes decisions about withdrawing children’s books, so don’t worry, the Ungerer is safe. Too bad it’s paperback though.

    Comment by speedytexaslibrarian — June 18, 2008 @ 6:18 pm | Reply

  11. Okay, we’re definitely talking about different editions. Are you sure you don’t want the paperback? My library had it on its shelves. And it seems to have survived a lot of wear-and-tear.

    Have you read any of the many sequels to “Flat Stanley”? I can’t recommend these without having seen them because there’s often a huge drop-off in quality with sequels. Even Louisa May Alcott’s are no match for “Little Women.”

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — June 18, 2008 @ 7:28 pm | Reply

  12. I’ve read most of the sequels to “Flat Stanley” and I agree, they aren’t as good as the original. Kinda like carrying a joke too far, you know?

    Don’t worry, I won’t be getting rid of the paperback! It’s just that it is really thin and hard to see on the shelves; that’s another reason I tend to prefer hardbounds.

    Maybe you’ve seen this article about Ungerer and his work: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/27/arts/design/27kenn.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&ref=books. We’ve got “The Three Robbers” and another one called “Crictor” (about a pet boa constrictor) in our collection.

    Comment by speedytexaslibrarian — July 26, 2008 @ 10:00 am | Reply

  13. What a great link. I encourage everyone with an interest in superior children’s books to read the New York Times story that it will take you to.

    The article gives background on Ungerer’s stellar career and notes that Phaidon has acquired all of his books and will begin reissuing them soon. That’s wonderful news. I will look for the books.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — July 26, 2008 @ 2:10 pm | Reply


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