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.