First things first. You’re just going to have to get over the fact that Pinkwater clearly—clearly!—drew all the pictures with a set of magic markers. And not just any magic markers; the scented magic markers you had as a kid. You know the ones, with the red cherry one and the light green apple one and the mysterious dark green one and the black licorice one that no one liked. This book was clearly drawn with those. And the first time you pick up this book, that’ll put you off. But push past that initial distaste, and trust for a moment that the “my eight-year-old self could have drawn this!” feeling will subside, and you will soon find yourself charmed by this book.
Because this book is truly charming. It’s the story of a neighborhood where all the houses are the same, and everyone likes it that way, but then an unexpected splot of orange paint inspires Mr. Plumbean to change his house, and he gets wild with the paint and the construction and the landscaping, and soon his house looks nothing at all like the others, and the neighbors complain, but one by one they go and talk to him, and everyone who goes and talks to Mr. Plumbean ends up changing his own house, until all the houses look different from each other, and guess what? They end up liking it better that way!
Okay, I realize that the plot summary makes it sound as dopey and juvenile as the magic marker illustrations suggest, but I swear, it’s awesome. Part of it is the utter straightforwardness of it, with no pretension at all. Its message is right there, and it doesn’t try to make it cute, or clever, or even especially convincing—it just is. But on top of that directness you have truly wonderful, silly, inspired language, that pull the book out of dopey-land and make it really joyful. “Plumbean has gushed his mush, lost his marbles, and slipped his hawser!” the neighbors cry. Plumbean plants “palm trees, baobabs, thorn bushes, onions, and frangipani” in his garden. And I don’t think you’re legally allowed to review this book without quoting the refrain: “My house is me and I am it. My house is where I like to be, and it looks like all my dreams.”
Alright, fine, it is a little dopey, but dash it all, it totally works. You will find your heart warmed, you will enjoy reading it aloud, and the children you read it to will be hypnotized.
A few years ago I did a project around this book with a class of three-year-olds. We read this story, and then built our own street of houses out of cracker boxes turned inside-out to be identical and brown and boring. And then each kid spent several weeks decorating and re-decorating their houses, and we watched as they all became radically different. Some kids painted them, some cut holes for windows and doors, some wrapped their houses like presents, some glued on feathers, some kids decorated and then took everything off and changed it again and again. By the end of the project, our street (to quote Pinkwater) “was like a rainbow. It was like a jungle. It was like an explosion.” And as we looked at photos of the beginning and the end, we asked the kids which street they liked better, and they were really articulate about how much cooler it was that all the houses were different. And in the end, I think the message that comes through from this book isn’t a tired old “hey, we should all respect differences because it’s the right thing to do.” It’s a much more exciting sense of “differences are awesome and exciting and fun!”
It’s a really, really good book.
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