In 2013, Andrea Zuill made a big splash in our region by winning the “Best Portfolio” award at the SCBWI Golden Gate Conference. The honor was well-deserved.
In Sweety, every line of Andrea’s work is so expressive, I found myself laughing and crying over a naked mole rat who wears clothes. In other words, Sweety stole my heart.
The opening spread pretty much says it all.
Sweety is the odd mole rat out. If you can’t read the fine print, Andrea adds a bit of “meta” irony by including a footnote:
(Please note that naked mole rats are born without fur but not without the love of clothes. The illustrator is grateful for this since she didn’t have to draw a bunch of highly embarrassing pictures.)
When her grandmother calls her “a square peg,” Sweety doesn’t know what that means, but she begins to get a clue as we read on.
She’s excluded from groups. She’s intense and passionate in a way that startles other kids.
She loves mushrooms, not eating them which would be bad enough in a kid’s world. She loves identifying them. Egads, how boring! And she loves interpretive dance. Hmmmmm.
Look at those pointed toes, the arched neck, the tension in her arms, the blissed-out face. She is lost in her world. But her classmates don’t appreciate her version of a book report. One asks “What book is this?”
Andrea is a master at contextual/visual irony. Sweety admires a classmate, Deb, who “always said the right thing and had stylish friends.” And she admires Deb’s “beautiful hair.”
Yes, Deb has just one hair tied with a bow.
Look at Sweety’s face. Her posture. She’s such a fangirl. Readers are both laughing at the silliness of admiring that one hair and feeling a little squeamish at just how much of an outsider Sweety is, at how much she longs to be something that really isn’t as fabulous as she thinks it is, and because her heart is so fully exposed, so so vulnerable. Just like us. Readers’ hearts are breaking for her and for ourselves whenever we’ve felt like outsiders. We want to give her a hug and tell her (and us) it will all be OK.
All she has to do is love and appreciate her individuality. That she will find her own peeps. They’re out there. She doesn’t have to become someone else, a diluted, less “Sweety” self.
Lucky for Sweety, she has an ideal role model in Aunt Ruth, someone who loves identifying mushrooms, interpretive dance, and looking at family albums, where we discover that Aunt Ruth and Sweety’s mom went through punk-goth periods. The photos are HILARIOUS! But most importantly, Aunt Ruth encourages Sweety to stay true to herself and find “your people.”
Something we should all do.
Note on Craft: Andrea Zuill displays a wonderful sense of comedic irony and timing, a subject that’s been discussed recently in the picture book world. Sweety would serve as an excellent mentor text for 1) the rule of three for setting up jokes, 2) showing illustrations that contradict what’s being said in the text, and 3) wringing laughter from clash of context. In this case a naked mole rat wearing clothes and having unusual personality traits.
Discuss how everyone has habits that others might find unusual or uninteresting.
Pair this book with A NORMAL PIG by K-Fai Steele to discuss the ways in which people can be different and the same. I’ve written a review for it here.
Author/Illustrator: Andrea Zuill
Publisher: Scwartz & Wade, Penguin/Random House, 2019
Themes: Friendship, individuality, self-esteem
I would also recommend Andrea’s first book, WOLF CAMP, a story about a highly domesticated pampered pooch named Homer who attends a summer camp on how to be a wolf. It, too, will leave you in stitches.
For more perfect picture book recommendations, check out Susanna Hill’s website.