Mario Makes a Move, by Jill McElmurry

Mario Makes a Move is the newest picture book from Jill McElmurry. You might recognize McElmurry's magnificent illustrations from Alice Schertle's Little Blue Truck books that I mentioned in my article The Changing Face of Board Books. McElmurry also illustrated the rollicking Pirate Princess by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen and talks about both books at 7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast. McElmurry shares her creative process for both books, through words and images, and it is a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of two very different books - different in story and illustration style. I especially love the personal story she shares about writing Mario Makes a Move. As an insecure, competitive, occasionally creative person, I completely related to the experiences McElmurry shared and think she has hit upon and emotional moment of childhood that is rarely reflected upon, especially in picture books.
McElmurry's grandparents, creative types, are named Mario and Isabelle, just like the main characters in her book. Says that she tells people Mario Makes a Move is autobiographical, noting that:

Like Mario, I had parents and grandparents who were encouraging to a fault. They praised every scribble and cheered every dance move, even the one where I claimed to be the fastest dancer alive. (It involved running in place, squinching my face, and imagining I was a blur of speed.) 

Like Mario, once I hit kindergarten, I learned there were other drawers and dancers (and writers and readers and math problem-solvers) out there more amazing than myself. Like Mario, I had a best friend I was sometimes jealous of. And, like Mario, from time to time I'll lose my groove and have to figure out how to get it back.

Unlike Mario, I was not then nor am I now a squirrel.

McElmurry goes on to tell the story of wandering through the children's section of a bookstore one day, already in an "Eeyore-ish mood, which is the exact wrong mood to be in if you happen to be a writer/illustrator of the under-confident sort," and feeling bad about herself as she looked at all the picture books on the shelves. It occurred to Jill that she was having a "Mario moment" and she went home and wrote most of the dialogue for Mario Makes a Move in about an hour. Wow!

McElmurry's sense of humor is evident throughout Mario Makes a Move, perhaps especially in her choice of a squirrel as her main character. I have to confess, I do not live in an area that has many squirrels and thus do not view them as tree rats. To me, they are cute, fuzzy, spazzy creatures that might take food out of my hand if I am patient and thus are infinitely entertaining. And Mario is infinitely entertaining, as can be seen in the illustration below in which he shows off his amazing moves.

McElmurry has given Mario's moves fantastic names, all worth reading out loud, "Charmed Arm," being my favorite. His parents, grandparents and auntie praise Mario. His cousins say, "Aaaaa!" because they don't know words. Then Mario takes his amazing moves over to Isabelle's tree and discovers that she is not as impressed as his family was. In fact, she says she can do his move! This leads to yet another favorite illustration of mine in Mario Makes a Move, the graph paper diagram, "How to do Isabelle's Amazing Move," by Isabelle with hearts and flowers dotting the "i"s. Mario insists that she has stollen his move. However, adding insult to injury, Isabelle informs Mario that not only did she NOT steal his move, but anyone can have a move, as their neighbors demonstrate below. (Yes, this is yet another illustration I love in Mario Makes a Move. Wouldn't this look great framed and hung in a kid's room? Or my dining room?)

Mario is concerned. Disconcerted. Mario regroups and decides that, "anyone can have an amazing move. I have amazing sticks." Mario collects sticks and even names them for a while until Isabelle tells him she was really hoping he'd teach her his move. Surprised, Mario questions her saying, "But you said it was NICE," to which Isabelle responds, "I meant to say it was elegant. And graceful." What lovely adjectives! Mario ponders this new development then realizes he'd like to learn Isabelle's move, too.

Isabelle is a willing teacher and the two take off, over the trees and, "everyone is amazed."

Very few picture books touch on jealousy in a thoughtful way. Like anger or the desire to be mean, it seems to be an aspect of childhood authors and parents are wary of introducing into their children's lives via a picture book, despite the fact that it is no doubt an everyday experience. I think that Kevin Henkes' Julius, Baby of the World is one of the best books for a new sibling (over the age of 3) out there, but so many customers I recommend it to shy away when I mention that Lilly does not like her little brother at first. With Mario Makes a Move, McElmurry has found a funny and fun way to think and talk about feelings of jealousy and feelings of not being special that will not scare off parents. She has also written and illustrated a book that is, quite simply, a great story.

You can next find Jill McElmurry illustrating a book set in my own back yard, practically! Beach Lane Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, will be publishing a book about Kate Sessions, the woman known as "the Mother of Balboa Park," with illustrations by McElmurry. She will also start working on illustrations for Kathi Appelt's next book, Before and After Otis, set in the desert and featuring coyotes. Although they have dined on a few of my cats over the past 15 years, I find coyotes infinitely fascinating and can't wait to see this book!

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