BookPage Children's Top Pick, August 2014
There are lots of picture books about children who worry, ones that try in various ways to reassure children that everything, in the end, will be OK. But I can promise you that you haven’t seen one quite like Anthony Browne’s What If . . . ?
In a story that manages to be offbeat, cryptic and comforting all at once, a young boy named Joe heads to his first big birthday party. He’s apprehensive, and to make matters worse, he’s lost the invitation and the birthday boy’s house number. One has to wonder if he intentionally misplaced them, but either way, his mother convinces him that they’ll be able to find the house and that it will be great for him to meet new children. They take a leisurely stroll through the neighborhood, and at each house, his mother stops to ask, “Do you think that’s Tom’s house?” No, says the boy, as we readers stare along with mother and son at the bizarre, dreamlike goings-on through a window of each home. In one, it appears an elderly man and woman sit and read, but look closely, and you’ll see a floating teacup next to the man and small, bizarre alien protrusions on the man’s head, as well as the dog’s. In the next house, a giant elephant stares from the window, and in another, one very madcap, Carroll-esque tea party takes place. It’s as if the titular “what if” question serves two purposes: to reassure the boy (things could always be worse, or at least weirder), as well as to prompt his imagination, thereby calming his anxieties on the way to the shindig.
In an all-too-real twist, once the boy arrives at the party, it’s his mother who worries about his well-being as she heads home, but all’s well that ends well. When she picks him up, he’s had a blast.
Surreal and delightfully droll, this one’s a rare bird.
Julie Danielson features authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children’s literature blog.