(From “The Best Kid’s Stuff,” December 1996)
In a very welcome twist on those relentlessly beaming families so dear to picture book authors at holiday time, Matthew McElligott offers “The Truth About Cousin Ernie’s Head” (Simon & Schuster, $15). Here’s a crowd gathered for Thanksgiving whose squabbling over family history never lets up. McElligott’s narrator gets a taste of harmony and then decides he likes his combative family just the way it is.
A nice change from all the sweetly nostalgic holiday stories about extended families, this funny picture book is for any child who has to suffer noisy, overbearing adult relatives with their ritualized memories and grudges. As usual, all of Ernie’s family gather at his grandmother’s for Thanksgiving. And, as usual, they are all soon loudly arguing about what really happened when . . . . Then Ernie finds an old family movie in the attic that documents the way things did happen. The loudmouths are silenced. But Ernie is sad to see them crushed, and he soon works out a way to get the crazy, noisy conversations going again. The garishly colored, New Age-style illustrations express the boy’s view of these eccentric characters shouting around the dinner table. The fun is in the details, in the wild exaggeration, and in the sense of a calm child surrounded by adult farce.