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.


Heidi Mordhorst said...

Hi, David. Fascinating: I do know Nothing Ever Happens and I didn't know Punch in NY, and as usual you've given me a new view of the first and first view of the "new".

Here's what I notice in your two posts: in this world of picture book literature, maybe Chester is the bad guy who seems to get away with the very inattention and deliberate boredom and ignorance that scares us in "values"-based reviews. I think you and I agree that it's naughty and ungracious to remain unchanged by our experiences, especially if someone has taken the trouble to make us characters in literature, but then look back at Moon Jumpers. If I recall correctly, nobody much changes and that's one of the powers of the book--it's not so much about what changes as what doesn't change, that children need to play out in moonlight. (I think this is part of the magic of one of my other favorite books, Roxaboxen, where there is historical change but where the real plot is simply that children need to play at being grownups.)

So, can we not grant Chester the right to play at being resolutely bored? I think I can--but only once in a while. Then I have to take him and teach him how to pay attention and then think about it. Although I really liked your idea that THIS is Chester's regular life and that the only thing that would catch his eye is something entirely mundane like someone coming by to say, "Little boy, why aren't you at school?"
: )

david elzey said...

the thing is, heidi, i think i'll make allowances where poetry is involved in life. chester's story is a litany of complaint and his change is a stubbornness without reward. in moon jumpers the children there are in a creative celebration of nothing, a dance if you will, while nothing ever happens... is more a more stagnant view of life.

i would be more likely to grant chester his day of boredom (were it mine to grant) if i had a sense that he had grown bored of the actual events around him, as if a fire and criminals running around his street were a daily occurrence that he had become numbed toward, in which case it would be interesting to see him pulled out of this ennui through something small, like a butterfly or finding a some other smal thing on the ground that otherwise went unnoticed.

again, i've drifted into the territory of talking about the book i *wished* nothing ever happens... was, but as for what it is, i think i'll have to stand by what i said.