I’ve spent two posts so far lauding the comedic storytelling talents of author-illustrator Mélanie Watt – apologies again for the delay in getting the third part of the trilogy online – and now it’s time for us to take a look at what’s left. And by “what’s left”, I mean, what other Mélanie Watt books I’ve read with my daughter. Let me warn you – my exposure to Watt’s works is achingly incomplete. At the Kids Can Press website, Watt is listed as the creator of 18 different picture books and my family has read about 8 of them. Granted, we have read most of Watt’s two most acclaimed and widely-known series, Scaredy Squirrel and Chester, so we’ve covered most of the big hits, but there are still a lot of deeper album tracks that we still haven’t explored yet. (We particularly want to check out her Learning with Animals series and the picture book Augustine.)
However, we have read two of those “and the rest” titles – Leon the Chameleon and You’re Finally Here – and, let’s get this out of the way up-front, both are really strong titles that you definitely should pick up at your local library, if you can. You’re Finally Here is definitely the better of the two books, but there’s a reason for that. And that reason is… there’s a ten-year gap between the publication of Leon and You’re Finally Here. Leon the Chameleon was the first picture book that Watt ever published – she originally created it as part of a design class assignment at the University of Quebec – and You’re Finally Here was published in early 2011. So, Leon was the product of an up-and-coming artist experimenting with the picture book format for the first time and You’re Finally Here is that same artist checking back in with almost a decade of publishing experience under her belt.
Can you tell the difference between the two books? In a word, yes. Leon is a fun book, but it’s very straightforward, very predictable. Now, predictable isn’t always bad. Listening to someone sing “Danny Boy” is predictable – you know how the song goes – but that doesn’t stop you from tearing up when someone really, really talented sings the heck of the song and brings down the house. Leon the Chameleon doesn’t bring down the house, but it’s earnest and fun and shows a TON of promise.
The story revolves around a chameleon who is having trouble fitting in with the rest of his chameleon friends. For some odd reason, Leon always turns the opposite color of his surroundings, so, when all of his pals turn green to camouflage themselves in the forest, he turns red. When they’re crossing the yellow sands of a desert, he turns purple. It doesn’t take long for Leon to start feeling insecure about not fitting in (or blending in), but being different eventually comes in handy when some of of his chameleon pals get lost and they need a non-camouflaged beacon to guide them home. It’s your basic “being different can be awesome” story, a staple of kids lit, that’s far more sweet than it is funny. Like Leon himself, Watt’s story stands out from the pack thanks to her clean, spare design work and knack for evocative facial expressions. Out of all of Watt’s books (that we’ve read), this one definitely skews the youngest and I think kids 3 and under, in particular, would really enjoy it, especially with its emphasis on teaching primary colors.
On the flip side, You’re Finally Here is a book tailor-made for parents – well, for parents who like to read books aloud to their kids. Don’t get me wrong. You’re Finally Here is DEFINITELY a kids book and it’s totally appropriate for any kid 2 and up. However, it’s one of those rare picture books that is so funny and fun in both concept and execution that any parent with a decent sense of humor will be bugging their kid endlessly to let them read it at bedtime. “Oh, c’mon, son. Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs again? Isn’t that a bit heavy? How about I read You’re Finally Here one more time?”
I’m exaggerating, of course, but not by much. If you know a parent who really loves reading aloud to their kid, handing them a copy of You’re Finally Here is like handing an over-eager freshman drama major a collection of Christopher Durang monologues. They will soon find themselves obnoxiously giddy with such an overload of fantastic material. In You’re Finally Here, Mélanie Watt definitely shows off the wealth of knowledge she’s accumulated in the ten years since Leon the Chameleon, creating a picture book that takes a very simple premise and turns it into something extremely dynamic, interactive, and laugh-out-loud funny.
You’re Finally Here isn’t a story book, per se. Much like books such as Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, You’re Finally Here is all about the interaction between a fictional character and his or her audience. Watt’s book is all about a one-sided conversation, in the spirit of the best Bob Newhart phone call bits, but your child gets to fill in the pauses and answer the questions however they see fit.
The book opens with a little bunny who is EXTREMELY excited that you’ve finally arrived. He can’t contain himself. He’s just so, so happy that you’ve opened his book and that you’re finally, finally here. But things quickly get interesting as the bunny’s excitement turns into passive aggressive scolding as he begins politely berating the reader with questions like “But where were you?” This is one needy bunny and he alternates between making the reader feel guilty for not showing up sooner and trying to cajole the reader into agreeing to stay with him for however long he wants.
And then something awesome happens – the bunny’s cell phone goes off and he actually takes the call. At first, it just seemed like a cute joke, but, as it goes on, I just fell deeper and deeper in love with the bit. People obnoxiously taking cell phone calls at inopportune or just downright inappropriate times is, unfortunately, a fact of life these days, and it’s a behavior that most kids are extremely familiar with. So, when this fictional character gets a phone call in the middle of a BOOK and takes the call, effectively ignoring the reader that he’s been talking to since page one, it’s a genius bit of behavioral comedy.
Now You’re Finally Here doesn’t glorify that behavior – in fact, it brings about the end of the book – but the way that Watt uses familiar verbal and physical cues to really, really make it seem like we, as the reader, are actually having a conversation with this little bunny glaring up at us from a picture book, it’s like a magic trick. And it’s extremely fun to read to your kid. I love reading books aloud to my daughter, and You’re Finally Herereally is A-List, “Dad wants to put on a performance” material. However, I will admit, if you don’t enjoy reading books aloud to your kid, this might not be a great book for you.
As I mentioned, this book is all about the little bunny having a conversation with his readers, so, if you don’t work to give his voice a little personality or if your kids aren’t old enough to comfortably read the bunny’s lines themselves, You’re Finally Here might not soar in the ways I’ve previously described. Because, since You’re Finally Here doesn’t have a story to fall back on, if you read the text in a monotone, there’s not going to be much there for a kid to love. It’ll sound like someone awkwardly asking questions and repeating phrases like “you’re finally here” over and over again.
BUT that’s not a weakness of the book itself. That’s a weakness of the reader. In You’re Finally Here, Mélanie Watt has taken the classic concept of a fictional character speaking to his audience and found some very interesting ways to make that concept fresh again. Watt’s little bunny is exuberant, pushy, passive-aggressive, charming, and very, very human and, I think, kids will adore how the bunny behaves less like a character in a book and more like a motor-mouthed friend or family member. You’re Finally Here and Leon the Chameleon couldn’t be more different in tone or execution, but, while both are fun reads, I think You’re Finally Here really excels thanks to the metric ton of subtle behavioral humor that hides behind the little bunny’s huge, excitable eyes.
So this finally concludes my three-post ode to Mélanie Watt. Thanks for sticking with me and I really do hope my rambling has, at the very least, put Watt on your radar. She’s a wonderful children’s book creator, the kind that kids and parents alike can treasure and enjoy.
THE DETAILS ON LEON THE CHAMELEON AND YOU’RE FINALLY HERE:
AGE RANGE: Either book should be fine for kids three and up, but, like I mentioned previously, I think Leon the Chameleon definitely skews younger. Leon will have a shorter shelf life – I can’t see a six-year-old really having fun with it – but it should even work well for kids younger than three. For You’re Finally Here, some of the humor might go over the head of a 3 year old, but, again, with that book, it’s all about the delivery.
PAGE COUNT: Leon = 32 pages; You’re Finally Here = 48 pages
AUTHOR WEB SITE: Mélanie Watt is from Quebec, so her official website is in English and French. The site is pretty sparse – almost strangely so – but you can find some good information there. A large majority of Watt’s works have been published by Kids Can Press, so you can find more information on her works at their site.
BUY IT, BORROW IT, OR FORGET IT?: Scaredy Squirrel and Chester are easier titles to say yes to an immediate “buy.” For Leon, I’d definitely take it out from the library first. (Simple and earnest doesn’t fly with some kids.) You’re Finally Here is probably a safer bet, but, once more, if you don’t make its reading into a performance (or if your kids can’t explore the text themselves), you might want to borrow it first to see if the little bunny really speaks to your family.
IF YOU LIKED LEON THE CHAMELEON, YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:
- The Mixed-Up Chameleon by Eric Carle – Typically, I hate it when someone makes a reading suggestion based on the most basic element of a book. I’ve seen so many examples of readalikes where the suggestions seem so surface-level and shallow – “Oh, you read a book about a wolf that you liked? OK, here are ten other books with wolves of them, regardless of their tone, writing style, story, etc.” That always drives me nuts, so I understand if suggesting another chameleon book as a readalike for Leon the Chameleon might seem like a bit of a cheat. But Carle’s Mixed-Up Chameleon really does have some thematic parallels to Leon – a chameleon discovers that his ability to change offers more unexpected opportunities than he originally realized – and ANYTHING Carle does is worth reading. His collage-spreads in The Mixed-Up Chameleon are the work of a picture book virtuoso.
IF YOU LIKED YOU’RE FINALLY HERE, YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:
- Big Plans by Bob Shea, illustrated by Lane Smith – This is another extremely funny book (got on our radar due to our family’s love of Lane Smith), in which we listen to a forthright young boy declare to the world that he’s got “BIG PLANS” and he’s not going to let anything stop him. While the book isn’t as conversational as You’re Finally Here, it has a similar format and sense of humor – it’s all about one character giving us, what’s essentially, an extended monologue. The boy’s monologue in Big Plans has a bit more story to it than You’re Finally Here – we get to see the boy acting out many of his “big plans” in his dreams – but the two books are equally funny.