Friday, June 17

Nothing Ever Happens On My Block

written and illustrated by  
Ellen Raskin  
Atheneum  1980 

While a boy sits and mopes there's plenty of things going on that he casually seems to ignore.   

In some ways Chester Filbert is like many kids who complain of nothing to do in a world where adults are more than happy to point out all the possibilities.  There Chester sits, a figure clad in black against a line drawing of his street full of houses with more Victorian gingerbreading than any historical town you can name. Soon people appear, in bright primary colors, kids playing ding-dong-ditch and girls jumping rope, a window washer, a gardner, a thief, a fire and a fire truck. All the while Filbert complains, comparing his dull block to places that have marching bands and haunted houses and pirates, basically everything he'd like to see instead of acknowledging the excitement bustling around him. Accidents pile up around Chester, kids get hurt, cars crash, an armored car dumps money everywhere and Chester goes home having decided that when he grows up he's going to move away from this crummy place.  

In he picture book game there are books where the reader can see more than the character can – I know there are others but I'm at a loss to recall them right now – making the story interactive and a bit of a game. Here, Raskin takes a common childhood complaint as her source and it works, but...

But I wonder when books play this game of "see how foolish the main character is behaving," especially picture books and early readers, if the message backfires. What happens when the reader identifies with the main character and, as in this case, can point out how preposterous the scene is while complaining that these same things never happen on the reader's block as well. The reader ends up feeling even more justified; not only don't they have thieves and police giving chase and trucks dumping money at their feet they also don't have haunted houses or parades either. Instead of being able to say to a reader "There's plenty of things happening if you open your eyes!" this narrative provides young readers the ammunition to say "Yeah? Like what?" 

Maybe there's an alternate reading to this story, something I haven't considered. What if this was the sort of thing that happened on Chester's street every day and he had become so numbed to it that all he longs for are the things he's never seen before. Or what if, what if everything we the reader sees is spectral, the ghosts of things and people that once lived on that street and now, like that kid in The Sixth Sense, appear to him in his ennui begging for the closure he has no interest in giving them? Why else would they all appear in monochrome from head to toe if these were not these shade's shades?

Okay, perhaps too close a reading, too unfair to over generalize. But let me ask if this book could be written or published today. Would we accept a main character who is unchanged at the end, a story where only the reader has (perhaps) been moved forward in their thinking?  It reads a little like a concept story with no resolution, the first act of a three-act play.

It's funny, because I don't feel this way about If I Ran the Circus and it's otherwise resolution-free story. Perhaps because in the act of imagining there is a celebration of creativity at hand where Nothing Ever Happens... is the antithesis of creativity, it's simply a list of complaints from a child who wants the world handed to them and can't be bothered to think about anything other than what's wrong.

And after all that, I still sorta like this book. I like the size (again a smaller picture book, about 6"x7") and I like the unchanging background with the action layered on top, like the various layers in multiplane animation. Color highlights aside, the details of the line drawing beg for closer inspection, though it might have been nice if they hid some secrets among their curves. Is it too much to wish for a gargoyle or a nest of birds with a little hatchling action? Now see, there I go, acting like Chester and longing for things that aren't while ignoring the things that are.
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