I’ve really struggled, trying to write a review of Mr. George Baker. The problem is that, as soon as I’ve written a paragraph or two, I’ll go back and read what I’ve said, and it sounds totally, absurdly, ridiculously over the top. This is just a picture book, right? Yet sometimes I find myself comparing it to masterpieces like Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” or John Donne’s “Meditation XVII.”
And that’s too much. It’s more like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The pace is slow. Everything interesting happens on one morning, on one front porch. At the end of the book, you get a glimpse of what comes later in the day. But place and time are deliberately constrained.
By slowing down, and focusing its scope, Hest creates the same sort of feeling of warmth and safety and gentleness that you get when you visit Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The book gives you time to absorb what’s going on, to appreciate the details, to recognize the layers.
And Mr. George Baker has layers. On the first reading, you might see nothing more than a brief vignette. A little boy, Harry, meets Mr. George Baker in the morning, and they wait together for the school bus. Harry is in first grade. Mr. Baker (Harry calls him George) is in an adult literacy class at the same school. Oh, and Mr. Baker is a hundred years old. And they both find reading hard.
That’s pretty much all there is, if you only look at the surface. But like a poem, Mr. George Baker evokes more than it says.
The book begins with Harry saying breezily, breathlessly, “See this man? This one here, sitting on the porch? That’s Mr. George Baker, and he’s a hundred years old, no kidding.”
And Harry really does want you to see Mr. George Baker. Over and over through the book, he says, See this man? See his baggy pants? See this man? See these crookedy fingers? See this man?
When you look at Mr. George Baker, do you see him?
What Do You See?
There are so many things to see in this brief book.
Start with a positive portrayal of a very old man. George is not weak or sick. Yes, his fingers are crookedy, and he gets up all crookedy and slow. But he can still dance, and he can still play the drums. He and his wife (who is ninety) live on their own, in a tidy house in a middle class neighborhood. They’re happy and capable and confident. And they’re very much in love.
Then there’s a warm and affectionate cross-racial and cross-generational friendship between George and Harry. Although race is never mentioned in the text, we know from the illustrations that George is black and Harry is white. And we know from research that stories that include such friendships have a powerful effect on children. They make the children more likely to welcome such friendships themselves.
And perhaps, with George’s example, children who become acquainted with Mr. George Baker will understand that it’s never too late to tackle something difficult or to learn something new. George never learned to read. And now that he’s a hundred years old, he’s decided that must be corrected. It’s hard. But he’s learning.
I’m sure, when I read the book again, I’ll see more. It’s just that kind of book.
Of course, when you read Mr. George Baker, you can’t miss seeing the wonderful illustrations by Jon J. Muth. Muth lets you see Harry and George from a lot of different perspectives.
You see them first from across the street, and with that view, you see the neighborhood they live in. You see George from Harry’s point of view. Then you’re looking up at the two of them as they sit companionably on the porch, eating chocolate kisses.
You see George’s fingers tapping on his knees. You see him, years ago, when he was a famous drummer man. The scene might be from George’s memory, or Harry’s imagination. Either way, it’s lovely.
Absolutely everything about the book is lovely and gentle and sweet. It has become one of my all-time favorite picture books.
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