I don’t know which of us loved the Scholastic Book Fairs that came to my kids’ elementary school more — them or me. The rule was that I would buy books, but they had to buy any of the other things Scholastic sells, like toys, posters, and stuffed animals. One fine fall day my daughter picked Eggday by Joyce Dunbar, illustrated by Jane Cabrera. I’d never heard of it. I’ve never heard anything about it since. On Amazon, the hardcover price is lower than the paperback version. We may be the only family that loved it. But oh, how we loved it.
One reason my daughter loved the book was its artwork. Kirkus Review covered Eggday and said this about Jane Cabrera’s illustrations: “Cabrera transforms the farmyard plot with a pleasingly free-form style and candy-bright colors. Every page bristles with color; brush strokes, dots, blots, and thumbprints create multi-layered scenes that fairly sing.” Cabrera lives in the UK and has illustrated dozens of children’s books.
The second reason I chose the book is because it’s funny. That’s why we read it over and over. We laughed when the pig, the horse, and the goat try to lay eggs. We even tried to imitate the “truly dreadful noise” they make: “Oink! Oink! Oink!” “Neigh! Neigh! Neigh!” “Bl-a-a-a! Bl-a-a-a! Bl-a-a-a!” Although it’s the dramatic, inspirational stories that win the awards and attract the think-pieces, humor is hard. Actors know this. It’s much easier to get an audience to cry than to laugh.
Eggday is “a best egg competition” announced by Dora the Duck. She asks the pig, the horse, and the goat to each bring an egg: “a pig egg,” “a horse egg,” and “a goat egg.” This book scrupulously follows the rule of three, not only with three main characters, but also much of the text happens in threes, as with the animal sounds.
Then we get a little vocabulary lesson. Hetty the Hen points out that not only are pigs, horses, and goats incapable of laying eggs, but this pig, this horse, and this goat are all dudes. Babies only come from sows, mares, nanny goats, so these fellas are out of luck. Moreover, the offspring of pigs, horses, and goats are not eggs — they are piglets, foals, and kids (respectively).
What would have happened to Beatrix Potter if she had written in the time of controlled vocabulary? Lettuce has a soporific effect on Peter Rabbit. ‘Come on, Beatrix, that word is beyond a child’s vocabulary.’ ‘But it’s the right word, it’s the only possible word.’ ‘Nonsense. You can’t use soporific because it’s outside the child’s reading capacity. You can say that lettuce made Peter feel sleepy.’
Armed with precise vocabulary, Pogson the pig, Humphrey the horse, and Gideon the goat now know they cannot lay eggs for the Eggday competition. Enter Hetty the Hen again, who saves the day by teaching these critters how they can decorate an egg to look like, well, what a pig egg, a horse egg, and a goat egg might look like. How do they pull off this feat? Who knows? Who cares? The resulting eggs look delightful.
Hetty lays a “beautiful, smooth, speckled egg.” Woe is me — I’ve spent too much time with store-perfect eggs. The book ends with a surprise. It’s one a watchful child with even a cursory understanding of barnyard reproduction can see coming. And isn’t it fun when you figure out the surprise before turning the final page?
Normally for our book club, I put information about the author earlier in the review. In this case I saved it for the end because until I sat down to write, I knew nothing about Joyce Dunbar. What I learned changed my take on the book.
Dunbar is a British writer who has published more than 80 children’s books. She’s taught English classes, drama classes (especially Shakespeare), and workshops for playwrights. She has written a couple of series: Panda & Gander and Mouse and Mole, which was adapted as a Christmas video. She’s best known for a book called Tell Me Something Happy Before I Go to Sleep. She started going deaf at the age of 5 and is such a good lip-reader that most people don’t realize she is deaf.
In an interview with author Aileen Stewart, Dunbar says, “Deafness is very limiting in all sorts of ways — mainly the phone — but it gives you a unique angle which is very good for writers. Thank goodness for e-mail!”
Knowing that Dunbar is deaf, I re-read the book in a whole new way. I read it as if the pig, the horse, and the goat had a disability. I realize that word, especially in the context of deafness — which has its own language and culture — is controversial, but I use it because Dunbar’s opinion on the subject of disability in children’s literature is often sought. Of course, Pogson, Humphrey, and Gideon aren’t disabled. They’re just made differently than Hetty the Hen and Dora the Duck.
Which is the point. Each animal does what it can and does it well. What starts as a competition ends as a celebration.
On the Q&A section of Dunbar’s website, she says, “Some of my funniest, lightest stories have come out of the most difficult things in my life. So everything that happens — or almost everything — is useful. If you haven’t got a problem, you haven’t got a story.”
In Eggday, Pogson the pig, Humphrey the horse, and Gideon the goat have a problem. The rest of us have a story.
The next Children’s Book Club will meet Friday, December 9: We will read The Tin Forest by Helen Ward, illustrated by Wayne Anderson.
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro