Different Like Coco. By Elizabeth Matthews. Candlewick, 40 pp., $16.99. Ages 4 and up.
By Janice Harayda
Elizabeth Matthews makes a few missteps in this sparkling picture-book biography of Coco Chanel that may cost her a shot at a Caldecott Medal. But Different Like Coco marks the arrival of a gifted new author-illustrator who will certainly be in the running in the future if she keeps turning out work of this quality.
Matthews slips a few quasi-anachronisms into her story of the poor but energetic French girl who learned to sew at a convent school, then revolutionized early 20th-century fashion with designs that both reflected and fostered the emancipation of women. Young Coco plays with a roll of toilet paper and uses electric lamps. And while such an impoverished girl could have had those luxuries in the late-19th century, it’s so unlikely that the images are jarring. It’s similarly distracting to read that Coco went to school “in Auvergne” instead of “in the Auvergne.”
But such small problems ultimately may matter about as much as the complaint often made about the creator of Where the Wild Things Are: “Maurice Sendak can’t draw faces.” Who cares when an author’s work has so much else going for it? Matthews has that signal virtue in her field: a lively and distinctive artistic style that children will recognize from one book to the next. In this one she works in pen-and-ink washed with watercolors that are subtle but not – as in so many picture books – insipid. Her characters have snout-like noses, prominent eyelids and mouths that convey a range of expressions, midway between realism and caricature. The images have a different style but an amusing spirit similar to that of some of Jean Fritz’s acclaimed books about the colonial era, including Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George? and Why Don’t You Get a Horse, Sam Adams?
Matthews has also entered a genre that needs writers of her talent. There are far too few good picture-book biographies for children under age 9. Because Matthews has a light touch, she would be an ideal author for picture-book biographies of female pioneers in comedy, such as Lucille Ball. From Different Like Coco to Funny Like Lucy? It could happen, especially if the American Library Association www.ala.org gives Matthews some encouragement when it hands out its awards in January.
Best line/picture: All display a fine ability to draw and sense of color. Different Like Coco also has outstanding endpapers, sayings by Chanel in a white font on a black field, that typify the attention to detail at Candlewick.
Worst line/picture: The electric lamps not only look anachronistic but don’t have seem to have cords or pull chains.
Published: March 2007 www.candlewick.com
Furthermore: Matthews lives in Rhode Island and attended that incubator of picture-book talent, Rhode Island School of Design.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.