Book Review: A Sick Day for Amos McGee

Stead, Philip C. A Sick Day for Amos McGee. Illus. Erin E. Stead. New York, NY: Roaring Brook Press, 2010.

THE BEST SICK DAY EVER and the animals in the zoo feature in this striking picture book debut.

Friends come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. In Amos McGee’s case, all sorts of species, too! Every day he spends a little bit of time with each of his friends at the zoo, running races with the tortoise, keeping the shy penguin company, and even reading bedtime stories to the owl. But when Amos is too sick to make it to the zoo, his animal friends decide it’s time they returned the favor.

This is the 2011 Caldecott Award winner, which means it was chosen by a panel of members of the American Library Association as the best picture book of the previous year. From the cover image, you might have thought this book was quite a bit older. The style of illustration and sparing array of colors harken back to days gone by. Mainly black and white sketches, with color added in here and there (Amos McGee’s pajamas are striped in green and white; the animals are colored but backgrounds are predominantly white), match the simple, classic storyline about friendship. Since the Caldecott Medal awards the illustrations and not the text, this review is mainly about the images.

Amos McGee is an elderly man who works at the zoo. He is a wonderfully stereotyped grandfather figure, tall and skinny and very caring about his friends. However, he is also portrayed in a way very relatable to children – he wears bunny slippers, and he has a teddy bear on his bed and a blanket that doesn’t quite cover his feet (children with growth spurts may have the same problem). Perhaps my favorite detail is when he is sitting with the shy penguin at the zoo, Amos sits with his toes turned in shyly just like his friend. Psychologists would call this kind of body language “mirroring” – an effort to make the penguin feel comfortable and relaxed. But Amos probably doesn’t even realize he’s doing it.

Another illustration detail I love is when the elephant is alone at the zoo because Amos has stayed home sick. The two play chess together every day, and on this day the elephant “arranged his pawns and polished his castles.” The background of the page, rather than being plain green, is a green and white checkerboard pattern, like the chess board itself would be if the reader was looking straight down at it.

More great details: In the last image, Amos and his friends are together in his bedroom at home, all asleep except the moon, and the elephant holds the teddy bear in his trunk. There are a little white bird at the zoo, and later at the house, and a white mouse at the house, and they are never mentioned in the text but can be found on nearly every page (this could be a quick game for children – how many times can you find the bird and mouse?). Amos has a framed photo of the penguin hanging in his kitchen. There are so many little things despite the fact that the images aren’t stretched across the pages, bombarding the reader. I keep seeing more of them each time I look at the book.

I can definitely see why this charming book was selected as the winner by this year’s Caldecott Medal Committee. The illustrations are timeless, and the text is a wonderfully simple testament to the treasure that true friends are.