In Praise of Mélanie Watt – Part One: Chester

by Tom B.

We have a lot of affection for Mélanie Watt in our house for several reasons. To start with, she’s the first children’s author-illustrator that my daughter really became a fan of all on her own. Now, on a whole, I think my daughter has not-bad taste when it comes to kids books – with a few notable exceptions – but I also realize that my wife and I do a fair bit of work to make sure that she has relatively higher-class material to choose from. I’ve essentially spent the first five years of her life whispering in her ear, like her own personal Screwtape, directing her towards the books I want her to read and making her feel like she has a choice in the matter.

Melanie Watt

This is Mélanie Watt. But I didn't add the red marker edits. She did it to herself.

“Oh, OK, I guess you’ve got to pick between this Tomie dePaola or this Roald Dahl book… you know, these ones that you picked out. YOU did. All by yourself. No. No, I don’t know what happened to that princess book. No, forget about that, I think someone else took it. No. And it was ripped, so we’re not going to buy it. So, between these two, the two that YOU picked out, which one are we going to get? Great choices, by the way.”

Don’t get me wrong. I give in to her reading preferences A LOT and I try to listen, but I’m not going to stop fighting the good fight when I’ve spent this many years gently manipulating her for the greater good. (I wish that sounded less sinister, but, eh, what are you going to do? Welcome to parenthood.)

But I have to give my daughter credit. She found Mélanie Watt all on her own. On a trip to our local library around two years ago, she emerged from the stacks grasping onto a copy of a picture book called Chester by Mélanie Watt. She plopped it down in front of me and said, “I want this one. It’s funny.” And, with an impassioned plea like that, we just had to take it home.

And my daughter was right. It WAS funny. And she absolutely loved it. Chester has a very funny premise, which Mélanie Watt executes exceedingly well. The gist is that an author and illustrator named, coincidentally enough, Mélanie Watt is trying – operative word: trying – to draw a picture book about a mouse who lives in a house in the country, BUT a big, ego-driven cat named Chester has swiped a red marker and is editing the story to make himself the star. Chester is constantly arguing with Watt via his red marker – they bicker on the jacket flap copy, Chester edits her author bio, the cat even changes her dedication on the copyright page.

(Also, since my day-job is being an editor at a publishing company, the idea of someone wreaking that much havoc with a red pen is just inherently funny to me.)

Chester

This is Chester. Blame him for the red pen.

The set-up is deliciously meta, but not in an inaccessible way. Sometimes when a kids book plays around with the idea of actually being a book, it can either get a little too cutesy with the premise OR it can get obsessed with parent-skewing in-jokes that fly right over your kid’s head. Some of the best examples of a meta kids book done right are The Three Pigs by David Wiesner, We Are in a Book by Mo Willems, and Duck! Rabbit! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. I think Chester would make that list too.

Chester eventually ignites a war with his creator, which is an extremely fun sequence to read aloud. When he redraws a page, she fights back with her omniscient author powers and changes the scene or dresses him up in a pink tutu. It turns into this large-scale argument with a fictional character refusing to listen to its creator – which is a really hilarious concept – but, since the creator becomes such a big part of the story, she becomes a character as well.

In fact, a few months ago, when the children’s librarian at our library asked my daughter who was her favorite character from a picture book, she replied “Mélanie Watt.” The librarian thought she’d misunderstood the question – “No, not favorite author…” – but my daughter knew what she was talking about. She LOVES Mélanie Watt as a character in the Chester books, even though she’s well aware that Mélanie Watt wrote and illustrated them as well. And I think that’s pretty awesome.

More than anything, Chester reminds me of the classic Daffy Duck cartoon “Duck Amuck” (by the great Chuck Jones), which I’m embedding here… because I can. It’s seriously one of the funniest cartoons ever made.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cH6i2Z6mTRE

Chester isn’t as funny as “Duck Amuck” (what is?), but it has that same sense of anarchic fun with storytelling, that insane struggle between a fictional character and his creator, which is like watching a much smaller-scale and funnier version of a person raging against God and God actually replying and engaging in the argument. (Has that kids’ book been written yet? If not, I call dibs.) And there are two other Chester books – Chester’s Back and Chester’s Masterpiece – that continue the fun. (Full disclosure: We’ve read Chester’s Back – it’s great – but haven’t gotten to Chester’s Masterpiece yet.)

Chester

Chester rejects your reality and substitutes his own.

Needless to say, our experience with Chester definitely turned us into big Mélanie Watt fans, but, like I mentioned, the role that Melanie Watt played in the actual story made her almost into a celebrity for my daughter. My daughter knows the names of many of her favorite authors, but if you mention Mélanie Watt, she lights up in the same way that she does when she sees a character signing autographs at Disney World. To her, Melanie Watt is a person who exists in real life and on the printed page, and she seems to think that dual-existence is extremely cool. And, as a result, when we go to a library or bookstore, she frequently goes on a hunt for Mélanie Watt’s name on other books, and that hunt has led us to some other amazing books… that I’ll get into tomorrow.

So, tune in tomorrow for “In Praise of Mélanie Watt – Part Two”, in which we talk about two of Mélanie Watt’s other creations, the Scaredy Squirrel series and You’re Finally Here.

THE DETAILS ON CHESTER:

AGE RANGE: Four and up, but my daughter found it when she was three and loved it. For kids younger than three, the marked-up pages and red marker scribbled over other writing might be too hectic to follow.

PAGE COUNT: 32 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?: We love Chester, but, as I’ve mentioned, the hectic, dense pace of the story might be a bit much for some younger readers. If you can, trial it out as a library book, but, if your library book doesn’t have it, it’s seriously great, so I’d recommend buying it.

IF YOU LIKED CHESTER, YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:

  • The Three Pigs by David Wiesner – The epic David Wiesner turns the story of the three little pigs (and our expectations of a “three little pigs” book) on its ear as the pigs escape the big bad wolf by jumping out of their panels and exploring the white margins on their pages. The white margins eventually lead them to a host of other stories and the pigs have a ball, ducking into other stories where they thumb their nose at what’s “supposed to” happen. (After the pigs duck into a medieval story, a dragon decides to not wait around to be slain by a knight and accompanies the pigs back to their own story, which does NOT bode well for the wolf.) This is a genius book that, like Chester, has a lot of fun playing around with the idea of what it means to be a character in a book.
  • Splat the Cat by Rob Scotton – Splat the Cat doesn’t have the same meta-fun with storytelling that Chester does, but there are a lot of similarities between the two books otherwise. Both are books about big fluffy cats who spent their time with mice. Chester wants to edit out his mouse companion. Splat is unusual amongst his cat friends for having a mouse as a pet. And his relationship with his beloved mouse gets tested on his first day of school when Splat is nervous about alienating his new cat classmates by admitting that he’s pals with a mouse. Splat isn’t as clever as Chester, but it’s really engaging and has a nicely skewed, though warm-hearted sense of humor.
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