A good children’s picture book is like beauty: it’s success is often in the eye of the beholder. With so many lovely books for young children rolling off the presses all the time, it’s tough to choose just one or two. One thing is clear: in a market that gets increasingly tougher, the very best of the bunch tend to be excellent all around, possessing all of the elements that make a book good, no matter who is beholding it.
Matthew McElligott’s latest is a terrific example. Backbeard and the Birthday Suit really does have it all. First of all — and to my mind, this is tremendously important in a children’s book — the illustrations are simply brilliant. McElligott’s style here is strong and assured. More: his technique is interesting, well thought out and executed. It appears that McElligott has combined traditional illustration techniques with photo-based backgrounds and textures. A lot of illustrators could not have pulled this off — at least certainly not so well — but McElligott manages it beautifully.”
Second — and no less important — the story here really works. Better still: it works on several levels. We meet Backbeard, “the hairiest pirate ever. Backbeard was so hairy, it was sometimes tough to tell if there was a pirate underneath.”
Not only is Backbeard hairy, he’s stinky, loud and just generally not that pleasant to be around. I mean, he’s so hairy, stinky and loud that even his parrots generally quit after just a few days. Waking up after a particularly exuberant birthday party, Backbeard decides enough is enough and leaves the comfort of his pirate ship in order to go shopping in town.
At a fashionable shop, he ends up in a very unpiratey suit, complete with boater hat, monocle and a pig for a mascot instead of a parrot. When he gets back to his ship, he is so unrecognizable to his crew that they attack him. Finally, after much kerfuffle, they realize their mistake and accept him as their captain.
Except, of course, with McElligott’s snappy prose and wonderful illustrations, the journey is a lot more fun. There’s even a mild yet meaningful positive message or two: 1. Clothes don’t make the man (or child or pirate, for that matter) and 2. Your friends (or your crew) will like you no matter what you wear, the important thing is to pick things that you feel good in.
There’s still more to like in Backbeard and the Birthday Suit. The typography here is clear and easy to read, which is important in a book meant to be read aloud. The book itself is beautifully designed and even text-only pages that would usually not sport an illustration feature delicately wrought sepia toned copy warmers by the author.
The result of all of this care and talent is a book that just snaps: it’s flawless and fun and highly recommended for young readers and pre-readers.
McElligott is also the author of Absolutely Not and The Spooky Book as well as several others. | April 2006
Monica Stark is a freelance writer and editor.