Imogene’s Antlers by David Small

by Tom B.

There are artists and illustrators that, I will admit, I have completely pushed on my daughter. When picking out books for her, I default to my own personal preferences far too often and the results of this editorial bias on my part are usually mixed at best. Sometimes she connects with my hand-picked selections and embraces them as her own; other times, she rebels against them fully and, as punishment, makes me read her a Disney Princess book. We fall into these roles fairly often, but every now and again, like the best children always do, my daughter throws me a curveball, just to mess with my equilibrium. One of the most pleasant of these unexpected surprises was the way that my daughter, very independently, claimed David Small as one of her very favorite children’s book creators and claimed Small’s Imogene’s Antlers as one of her very favorite picture books.

Imogene's Antlers

Imogene's Antlers, a laugh-out-loud library title

Small is a fantastic illustrator and author, who’s illustrated over 40 picture books (many of which he wrote himself), but he first got on my radar thanks to his searing 2009 memoir, Stitches, which stands as one of the best graphic novels I’ve ever read. I was actually at the 2009 National Book Awards ceremony in New York when Stitches was nominated in the young people’s literature category – it’s wonderful, but definitely not appropriate for most kids younger than high school age – and my main regret from the evening (aside from accidentally knocking a tray of drinks onto an old woman) is letting someone else grab the free copy of Stitches from our table’s centerpiece before I could.

I loved Stitches, but I hadn’t heard of Small before reading it. And, when my wife came home from the library one day, touting that she found a David Small picture book to read to our (at the time) 3-year-old, I was skeptical. And I don’t really have a good reason why. One theory I have is that I’ve seen lots of illustrators who typically create adult-themed material completely fall on their faces when they tried to create a “kids book.” Sometimes their works talk down to their audience, sometimes they’re just showcases for their art (with no semblance of a story), sometimes they’re achingly ironic, sometimes their attempts to reach kids just don’t work. The irony, of course, is that Small had been a successful and award-winning children’s book creator for YEARS before he published Stitches, but my limited exposure to his work gave me COMPLETELY the wrong idea about who Small was. And that’s my fault and yet another prime example of one of the most recurring themes here at Building a Library – I am wrong a lot. A LOT.

So, I didn’t push David Small on my daughter. In fact, I did the opposite. I presented the picture book my wife had found at our local library – titled Imogene’s Antlers – to her with an enormous indifference. I assumed that the book would be over her head or just wouldn’t connect with her and let my wife read it to her first, totally expecting that the book would flop. Once again, just to restate an important point, as a father, I am wrong A LOT.

My daughter went nuts for Imogene’s Antlers. NUTS. We have bookcases full of kids books in our house, but you could probably take all of the books that actually made my daughter laugh out loud, made her cackle like a madwoman while she read them, and those books would take up about a shelf and a half. Imogene’s Antlerswould definitely have a place on that shelf.

Imogene's Antlers

Could be worse. At least she didn't turn into a cockroach...

And it’s easy to see why. Imogene’s Antlers opens like an adorable riff of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis – “On Thursday, when Imogene woke up, she found she had grown antlers.”

After navigating some difficulties getting dressed and going through doors, Imogene becomes delighted by her predicament, while everyone else around her reacts in various shades of shock and denial. It’s like a charming converse of Florence Parry Heide and Edward Gorey’s The Shrinking of Treehorn, in which a young boy discovers that he’s slowly shrinking and, in a nice metaphor for adult indifference towards children, can’t get any of the authority figures in his life to realize what’s going on. (When he tells them that he’s shrinking, they scold him for “shirking.”) Imogene’s Antlers flips this premise and revels in having most of the adults react in over-the-top horror at Imogene’s new uniqueness, while Imogene herself seems to be having a grand old time.

While Imogene hangs wet towels and doughnuts from her new antlers, parents, doctors, and her school principal all huff and puff without being able to solve the problem. While the kitchen staff in Imogene’s house warmly accepts the “new” Imogene – one tells her “You’ll be lots of fun to decorate come Christmas!” – her mother goes to extreme lengths to hide the antlers, hiring a milliner to construct a ridiculously huge bonnet to cover them. (It does not end well.) The story ends with life returning to normal in Imogene’s household – she’s got antlers, so what? – and Imogene goes to bed, happily reflecting on her “long, eventful day.” And the fun starts all over when, the next morning, she wakes up without the antlers, but with a gigantic fan of peacock feathers on her rear.

The story itself is a great fable about being different. Imogene loves her unique new antlers, and Small has a lot of fun showing the futility of her parents’ efforts to hide what she really is. My daughter hooted at their every attempt to disguise the antlers and kept up an excited patter about how cool it would be to have her own set of horns. But, while the story is fantastic, it really is Small’s illustrations that make Imogene’s Antlers a classic.

Imogene's Antlers

It does look kinda fun...

Everyone just looks like they’re having such fun and the gallery of facial expressions throughout the story is amazing. Small is a master at using the body language of his characters to sell comedic moments and, on every page, you can find a tableau that’s just hard not to giggle at. Whenever I look at Small’s illustrations in Imogene’s Antlers, I find myself warmly reminded of the work of Robert McCloskey, specifically his artwork in the classic Homer Price. (While I do think that there are many similarities between McCloskey and Small – which is a high compliment – I think the comparison first occurred to me because the scenes where Imogene stacks doughnuts on her antlers reminded me of “The Doughnuts” chapter in Homer Price.)

It’s just an expertly composed picture book and, best of all, it makes my daughter laugh her head off. And she became such a fan of Imogene’s Antlers that, any time we hit a library, she squeals whenever she finds a David Small book. (Fortunately, his name is easily readable for a 4-year-old.) She now prides herself on being able to find David Small books and she’s loved every one we’ve borrowed and bought so far. (For the record, those titles include Eulalie and the Hopping Head, George Washington’s Cows, The Library, The Gardener, Once Upon a Banana, and The Huckabuck Family and How They Raised Popcorn in Nebraska and Quit and Came Back.) So, if you can manage it, try leaving Imogene’s Antlers around your house some time. Play it cool, don’t let your kid see you watching out of the corner of your eye, and just let them discover themselves. Maybe they’ll decide on their own that they love David Small too.

THE DETAILS ON IMOGENE’S ANTLERS:

AGE RANGE: Four and up, but the expressive illustrations and big text will charm even younger readers.

PAGE COUNT: 32 pages

AUTHOR WEB SITE: Here’s the link to Small’s website, which has a nicely exhaustive amount of detail on the books he’s written and illustrated (and the ones he’s just illustrated too). Plus it has a separate section on Stitches, which, parents, you should check out. It’s a breathtaking memoir that you won’t soon forget.

BUY IT, BORROW IT, OR FORGET IT?: I say, buy it. This is a fun, accessible picture book that is just the right kind of loony for kids and will crack them up.

IF YOU LIKED IMOGENE’S ANTLERS, YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:

  • The Shrinking of Treehorn by Florence Parry Heide, illustrated by Edward Gorey – This picture book definitely skews older than Imogene – with lots of small text that will be hard for younger readers – but, thematically, these books are close cousins. Fans of Imogene should eventually graduate up to Treehorn.
  • The Man Who Lost His Head, by Claire Huchet Bishop, illustrated by Robert McCloskey – This very cool picture book was out of print for years, but was recently re-released by the sublime New York Review Children’s Collection. And fans of Imogene will want to pick up a copy. First, there are the nice parallels between the illustrative styles of McCloskey and Small and, second, there are the story parallels – a man wakes up to find that his head is missing, so he sets off to make a new one. It has the same madcap energy as Imogene and the lunacy of the man trying on various different heads will definitely remind you of Imogene’s parents’ attempts to hide her huge new antlers.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Annie November 9, 2011 at 3:13 pm

Love this book!

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Kristina November 9, 2011 at 8:53 am

Ahh I LOVE “Imogene’s Antlers”! And “Stitches”! And I have never, until now, made the connection. Doh.

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