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Jack E. Davis
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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Cuneo, Diane Mary Louise Loses Her Manners;; illus. by Jack E. Davis. Doubleday, 1999. [32 p]
ISBN 0-385-32538-X   $15.95   5-8 yrs

Etiquette books in collections for youth usually gather dust until some poor beleaguered grownups come seeking a title that will turn their little hellions into little adults, well-mannered and preferably silent. Picture books about manners for children run the gamut from the unabashed behavior modification of the Berenstains to Sendak's more appealing role-playing images; there are books featuring monsters, dinosaurs, and alligators, all in need of having their attitudes adjusted so as to make the world a more polite and civilized place. The available manners books are typically missives with a message, and, while the subtlety and effectiveness of the delivery varies from title to title, there is no escaping the fact that these are books that are supposed to be good for you-and books that are good for you may be good for you, but they usually aren't much fun. Well, all that's about to change. Sweep those dusty tomes from the etiquette shelves (politely, of course) and make room for the redoubtable Mary Louise.

When Mary Louise misplaces her manners (a loss which becomes apparent at breakfast when she tells her mother, "Pass the pancakes, poop"), her father orders her to leave the table and not come back until she's found them. Mary Louise looks everywhere: "She turned her pockets inside out. She shook her hair. She looked up her nose. Between her toes. Inside her shoes. But they weren't there." So she grabs her little red wagon and goes out looking for them. She runs into Mrs. Abby, a local bohemian, barefoot with rose in hair, who is sketching a neighbor's portrait. A quick exchange of pleasantries reveals the nature of Mary Louise's loss, and, after a description by the determined Mary Louise ("They [the manners] have a big head for remembering all the rules there are about manners . . . and big ears for listening. And a little mouth to keep naughty words from slipping out. And no nose, for there's nothing polite about smelling or sniffing"), the fast-drawing Mrs. Abby sketches a picture of the missing manners, which Mary Louise then uses to track them down. From restaurant ("'I hope you throw up your meal,' she said sincerely") to doctor's office ("And instead of saying, 'Bless you,' she said, 'Boogers'"), from hot dog vendor to street musician to bus driver, Mary Louise follows her manners' trail of good deeds, leaving chaos in her own unmannerly wake. Exhausted ("She wished she had exercised her manners more often. Maybe then they wouldn't have been running around town exercising themselves"), she finally tracks her manners to the library ("Hey! Who's in charge here!" ML yells) where, directed by an understanding and good-humored librarian, she finds them snoozing under a pile of newspapers. Mary Louise gently lifts her manners into her little red wagon and "promised herself she would never give her manners a reason to run away again. 'Please,' she said. 'Thank you,' she said. 'Bless you,' she said. 'Excuse me,' she said. 'After you,' she said. 'Lovely day,' she said. All the way home."

Cuneo's irreverent text is accompanied by a riotous visual rendition, compliments of Davis' toothy characterizations and slick settings. From the family breakfast table domesticity to the squeaky-clean neighborhood streets to the blue-shadowed hush of the many-shelved library, Mary Louise travels through a mélange of wildly expressive and fortunately helpful characters who direct her to her manners' final destination. ML's world is colorfully rendered in a stylistic combination of David Catrow and Roy Gerrard (with a little Underdog and Bullwinkle thrown in), and the illustrations have an airbrushed sophistication that both contrasts with and emphasizes the absurdity of the accelerating plot. Framed full- and double-page spreads, like giant cartoon panels, barely contain the antic activity, and Mary Louise's carroty cowlicks constantly escape the controlling borders. Upfront perspectives and monumentally drawn figures bring a stolid solidity to Mary Louise's environment that belies the unapologetic silliness of the ongoing action. The fact that readers and viewers never see the specifically described misplaced manners is a hospitable invitation for a group art activity that will simply extend the hilarity while reinforcing the point.

A spunky heroine on a personal quest for self-realization is the perfect antidote to preachy manners picture books; Mary Louise's dogged determination to retrieve what's hers will have kids snorting over the pages, spank you very much.

-- Janice M. Del Negro, Editor

Big Picture Image
May's Bulletin cover illustration
by Jack E. Davis from
Mary Louise Loses Her Manners,
Copyright 1999. Used by
permission of Doubleday Books for Young Readers



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