A pencil and other objects come to life to help a boy write a story for school
Homework. By Arthur Yorinks. Illustrated by Richard Egielski. Walker, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 4 and up.
By Janice Harayda
Household objects that come to life have been inspiring brilliant picture books since the Victorian era, when Randolph Caldecott drew a dish running away with a spoon for Hey Diddle Diddle. And few creative teams might have seemed better qualified to preserve the tradition than Richard Egielski, who won the 1987 Caldecott Medal for his pictures for Hey, Al, and Arthur Yorinks, who wrote the story for that book.
The plot of their latest collaboration certainly had promise: One night while he sleeps, a boy named Tony gets help with his homework from four objects on his desktop – a pencil, an eraser, a ballpoint pen and a fountain pen. The four decide to write a story for him about outer space. And the quartet’s bickering and attempts to improve one another’s work tell children something important about writing – that revision is a vital part of the process.
But the text of Homework begins with back-to-back clunky and ungrammatical sentences and moves on to worse. The eraser calls a pen “a jerk.” The pencil calls the eraser and a pen “nincompoops.” And in the interplanetary tale they concoct, the white captain of a spaceship gets attacked by a giant purple splotch and cries out for help to a black crew member – who runs away as his leader is being eaten and, apparently, killed. What message are children supposed to take away from this? That it’s okay to desert your friends in a crisis as long as you help them with small things like homework? And what will children make of a black character running away as a white one is devoured?
Yes, the tale is a fantasy and the objects return to inanimation after Tony awakens and finds inspiration in their work (suggesting that perhaps he dreamed what they wrote). But the lapses all the more lamentable because Richard Egielski – though his art is flatter than usual – uses a remarkable technique in Homework. Midway through the book, Egielski changes the look of the white Tony so that in his darkened bedroom he appears black and later Asian before he is white again when the lights come on again. He also does this so subtly that you might read the book several times before you even noticed it. This is near-genius not just because it allows boys of varied races to see themselves in the hero but because it reflects a truth: fantasy has an appeal that transcends race. For all the imperfections of Homework, a similar technique could enrich many other picture books.
Best line / picture: The first picture in which the white Tony appears black.
Worst line / picture: The opening sentences, “One night, like almost every night, Tony’s mom yelled, ‘Tony! Do your homework!’ And like almost every night, Tony didn’t do his homework.”
Published: July 2009
Furthermore: Yorinks lives in Brooklyn, NY, and Egielski in Milford, NJ. They have collaborated on nine books. Egielski also illustrated the recent The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert & Sullivan.