Review: Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan
By Phoebe Vreeland, The Children’s Book Review
Published: December 28, 2010
by Rukhsana Khan (Author), Sophie Blackall (Illustrator)
Reading level: Ages 4-8
Hardcover: 40 pages
Publisher: Viking Juvenile (March 4, 2010)
Have you looked over The New York Times Book Review’s list of Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 2010? I imagine that if you spread all ten books on a table and let the kids each choose a book, there might be a fight over Big Red Lollipop. It certainly caught my eye. How could it not? The cover illustration features a sweet smiling face half obscured by an enormous, bright red sucker. Sophie Blackall’s illustrations are winning.
All the honorees this year are alluring, especially to the adult eye—perhaps due to a retro or timeless quality some of the illustrations have. The books are each quite unique. They have great artistic merit and are beautifully designed, but I reckon only time will tell which books will cross over to other lists of picture books most loved by children. Are they universal enough to be classics? Will they become tuck-in or library read-aloud staples? For the record, Maurice Sendak has been honored on this list 20 times since its inception in 1952. His books clearly tell stories children love to hear repeatedly. Well, I believe Big Red Lollipop will be loved for years, too. It is eye candy with substance.
A lot of readers will be familiar with illustrator Sophie Blackall through her depiction of the characters in Annie Barrows’ Ivy and Bean series. Blackall’s illustrations have graced many projects since her successful illustrations for Shirin Yin Bridges’ Ruby’s Wish. A quick visit to her website and I see just how often her illustrations have charmed me. Who else could make wombats so adorable (Wombat Walkabout, 2008)? She also illustrated the cover of Rebecca Stead’s Newbery Award winning When You Reach Me. While scrolling through her blog I stumbled upon a couple of preliminary versions for the When You Reach Me cover, which featured Miranda’s face. I was covered in goose bumps. It was exactly how I had imagined the character looked. No wonder writers love working with Blackall, she fleshes out their characters to such perfection. No doubt about it, Big Red Lollipop author Rukhsana Khan must be pleased.
Khan immigrated to Canada from Lahore when she was three-years-old. She had always dreamed of being a writer. Early on, a publisher suggested that she write about her own culture. After eight years of honing her skills she had her first book published, and to date she has published eleven. Her 1998 book The Roses in My Carpets, a story of a young Afghan refugee boy, won the Honourary Januscz Korczak Award, a biennial award given to six books with a humanitarian theme. It is also featured in the Canadian school curriculum to banish racism in the classroom.
While many of her books deal with Muslim cultures, Khan has said, “Culture in a story should be like wallpaper…part of the setting. That’s what I try to do with my stories. They are set in Muslim culture but are stories that would hope anyone can relate to.”
On Khan’s website, Big Red Lollipop is described as “a multi-cultural picture book about greed and temptation, set in North America about two sisters who are invited to a birthday party. The book deals with sibling relations, specifically how older children cope with accommodating younger siblings and the pain the parents unwittingly subject them to while trying to teach them to share and include their little sister or brother. Rubina is excited to receive her first invitation to a birthday party. Her excitement fades when her mother insists that she bring her younger sister Sana along to the party. The family is Pakistani and while elementary school aged Rubina knows that her friends will think it’s strange that she must bring her younger sister, her mother Ami is unfamiliar with even the concept of a birthday party.
Rubina grudgingly brings her sister along and naturally Sana, too young for the party games, makes a scene during musical chairs. But the real drama comes when they return home from the party with goodie bags. The different level of maturity between the girls is well depicted. Older Rubina is a savoring, tidy and thoughtful child. Her little sister Sana still has a wilder, impulsive energy. The illustration contrasting them asleep in their beds the night after the party is priceless. Sana has ravaged her goodie bag and tossed off her covers, looking like she fell asleep running. Rubina is neatly tucked in, smiling and peacefully dreaming of her treat that awaits her in the fridge the next morning. Anyone who has a younger sibling can guess the trajectory of this story: the temptation that big red lollipop presents is too much for little Sana who hasn’t yet learned how to deal with greed. Blackall’s love of illustrating with diagrams is put to good use in a wonderful chase scene between the two sisters. The diagram captures Sana’s sneakiness and Rubina’s pent up anger let loose in a fun two page spread that children will love to trace their fingers over.
Young readers that have ever felt the injustice of a younger sibling “getting away with it” will feel heard. However, what goes around comes around and soon, when Sana gets her first party invitation, the third and youngest of the sisters has her turn to beg Ami to go along. Here is the moment for Rubina to choose how to react: seek revenge or show empathy? The book ends true-to-form with a sweet lesson.
Sophie Blackall surely must have jumped at “the wallpaper” this story presented. She is so very good at illustrating many different ethnicities. She captures the beauty and expressive quality of this Pakistani family. She also seems to have had fun using a mix of patterns and colors—influenced perhaps by Asian textile prints—throughout the book creating an effect as pleasing as a sprinkling of sweets. Blackall is also an adept illustrator of emotion through facial expression and body language. Ami’s one raised eyebrow can express more than a thousand words to her daughters. Rubina’s face is so emotive that it could quite possibly retire all the Kimochi Dolls. This book makes a fabulous tool for discussing emotions with children. The book’s characters pull you back to feast your eyes on them, much like the draw of that big red lollipop. To me, that is what a good picture book is: sweet, alluring and addictive. Although my daughter has no siblings, she too loves to be read this book. Perfectly illustrated, a well-written story that everyone can relate to, Big Red Lollipop is definitely a winner. Now, if I could only learn to raise an eyebrow like Ami….
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