Henry's Hand by Ross MacDonald
I fell in love with Ross MacDonald's picture books about 10 years ago when I read Another Perfect Day, a glowing picture book in which a Clark Kent-type fellow wakes to a golden day, gets shot out of a cannon, wrestles an alligator and other amazing things before things take a turn, then another turn, subtly revealing at the end of the book that our hero is in fact a toy that a little boy (and his baby sister) have been playing with all morning...
MacDonald also illustrated Hit the Road Jack, a picture book biography of Jack Kerouac, with Kerouac as a rabbit. Seriously. And it works. Really well! MacDonald's retro illustration style perfectly captures the exuberance of the roaming, box car hopping rabbit and the, for lack of a better word, innocence of the time.
With Henry's Hand, MacDonald is back to writing and illustrating his and bringing his unique and sort of weird sensibility to the world of picture books. Henry is a Frankenstein's Monster kind of guy, a "bits-and-pieces kind of guy" who's pieces go astray once in a while. To address this, Henry makes up a little rhyme that helps him remember and locate all his bits and pieces when he wakes up in the morning.
Of all his parts, Henry's right hand is his favorite. Working independently from Henry, his right hand is a bit like Thing from the Aadams Family television show (I just learned that Thing was originally a whole person who lurked in the background while serving the Aadams in the original cartoons and that his whole name is Thing T. Thing). And, like Thing, Henry sometimes treated his right hand like a servant. This, in turn, resulted in Henry's right hand leaving town on the back of a turnip truck one night.
At first Hand finds the city invigorating, but by dinnertime he is "cold, tired, hungry, lonely, dirty, scared and ready to go home." It is at this moment that Hand's life takes a turn for the better. He saves the life of a man crossing the street and the newspaper man is there to catch it all! Hand is a hero. Soon he is living in luxury with servants and assistants doing everything for him. In a "busy house filled with busy people in the middle of a busy city, Hand felt alone."
The ending of Henry's Hand involves some lessons learned in the part of Henry as well as a (left) hand written apology and a bird struggling to make a nest. What seems like a pretty strange mash-up of a monster story and a rags-to-riches tale works surprisingly well in Henry's Hand. MacDonald is a great storyteller, making his superb illustrations all the more enjoyable. MacDonald's artwork here reminded me of the excellent Tibor Gergly, illustrator of classic Golden Books like Scuffy the Tugboat, Tootle and my favorite, Busy Day, Busy People and Virginia Lee Burton, author and illustrator of another favorite of mine, the Caldecott winner, The Little House. MacDonald does equally well when focusing on a single image, like Henry in a tree, or a busy, chaotic city scene filed with people and action. And his characters are wonderful, too. Above all, I think little listeners will connect with Henry and Hand, despite the abstract nature of their relationship. Henry is a little ragged around the edges, but he doesn't have the bolts and scars of a more traditional monster and, while he is sort of a jerk, he also quietly learns to appreciate the friend (not the body part) that he lost with a little bit of elbow grease and reflection.
Source: Review Copy