Everything a picture book should be
Shoo! by Susie Bower and Francesca Gambatesa, Pushkin Press, September 2021
We have been utterly charmed by Shoo! by Susie Bower and Francesca Gambatesa. It's a masterclass in writing an irresistible picture book! Step 1: Create a fantastic main character – Grumpy Mrs Golightly who DETESTS all animals and considers them noisy, stinky and bothersome creatures. Step 2: Give her a flaw – she can't abide chaos and needs to have everything under control. Step 3: Introduce a high-stakes problem that's slightly surreal – have a zoo move in next door. Step 4: Launch a series of entertaining antagonists – the new neighbours that insist on invading Mrs Golightly's home, dancing on her lawn, and making her seem even more absurd. If this doesn't sound like a classic in the making, I don't know what does!
Having to contend with kangaroos on the loo, giraffes in the bath, llamas in our pyjamas and armadillos on our pillows would be challenging enough for the best of us. It's even more frustrating as well – as more comical – if you're already negatively disposed to animals and inclined to be cantankerous. Mrs Golightly's reactions to her intruders are brilliant and it's so much fun to wonder what she will encounter next as each page is turned.
In addition to its clever premise, its wonderful characters and their hilarious interactions, Shoo! has magnificent illustrations. And there are many more ingredients guaranteed to captivate children. Mrs Golightly has a catchphrase that appears again and again throughout the story: "Shoo! Shoo, I don't like you, go back to the zoo!" Little readers love repetition and all the rhyming and sound words will appeal to the very young too.
The evocative language that Susie Bower uses is a delight to read aloud. Mrs Golightly 'stomps' about while the alligator on her radiator 'slurps' their drink. There's the 'flippety-flap' of bats in hats and the 'wibble-wobble' of jellyfish in the satellite dish. And, of course, plenty of 'shoos' which kids will enjoy shouting along with Mrs Golightly.
Francesca Gambatesa's illustrations are fabulous and full of interesting and humorous details that enrich the story further. I love how animated the images are and their retro aesthetic. I love the old-fashioned clothing, accessories, hair and decor. The facial expressions of Mrs Golightly and the various animals are priceless, particularly Mrs Golightly's side-eyes. Every time we see it, Mrs Golightly's face conveys a different emotion – Francesca's ability to show so much range with just one character is incredibly impressive. We get to know more about Mrs Golightly from what her home looks like. It's impeccably neat but devoid of any life. It's grey outside and in. The only colour comes from Mrs Golightly herself, her collection of rubber ducks, and the guests that creep in uninvited. Although everything is orderly, it seems empty and lonely too.
There aren't many ornaments but one large photo of a ballerina hangs on the living room wall. This dancer has red hair (styled just like Mrs Golightly's) and is smiling. Could this be the younger, happier Mrs Golightly and has her life perhaps not turned out as she had hoped?
One of my favourite spreads shows a tiny but obviously horrified Mrs Golightly peer out of a window as her neighbours move in. Another is the final spread, which I won't spoil, but the sense of fun in it is infectious.
Without giving too much away, Mrs Golightly does have a change of heart. As the story concludes, her gait changes from a stamp to a lighter 'tippety-tap' and we see her prancing around instead of charging about. Her dress seems looser at the end and she wears a fancy hat. I love the squirrel who is evicted from Mrs Golightly's garden at the start. It reappears in the final scene, making off with one of Mrs Golightly's 'No animals' signs. We see them again on the back cover still carrying the sign with the first word now crossed out. The endpapers reflect Mrs Golightly's transformation. At the beginning, they are austere and grey. They use the wallpaper pattern from Mrs Golightly's hall and feature one of her ornaments, a snooty-looking bust. At the back, the pattern is in colour. Even the statue, now surrounded by paw prints and feathers and wearing Mrs Golightly's glasses, looks more content.
Although it's quite whimsical, Shoo! delivers a potent message about tolerance. It demonstrates the value of getting to know others before making judgements about them. And it shows how it's not healthy to try and control everything and that sometimes we have to embrace chaos and let others in. We witness the power of friendship and it's so lovely to see that despite her previous behaviour, the animals accept Mrs Golightly and give her another chance. The characters grow as fond of one other as the reader becomes of all of them! My kids adore this book and I really enjoy reading it to them. Their comments have been almost as amusing as the story itself. This would make an excellent classroom resource as the rhyming will help with language development and it's ideal for entertaining a group. It introduces children to different animals and teaches them the value of kindness and connecting with others. And for anyone interested in writing or illustrating stories for children, Shoo! is an excellent example of everything a picture book should be.
Thanks so much to illustrator Francesca Gambatesa and Pushkin Press for sharing this book with us. All opinions expressed are our own.