The best children’s books appeal to, and resonate with, not only the children listening to the story but also to, and with, the adults reading them. Since I’ve acquired today’s Perfect Picture Book, I can’t help thinking that themes of the book – wondering about people who are different than us; using clues to discover their natures; finding the courage to cross barriers that divide us – ring true on the playground, in the classroom, in the workplace, and even in the larger world, whether we are 5, 25, 55 or older. I think you’ll agree.
Title: Friend or Foe?
Written By: John Sobel
Illustrated By: Dasha Tolstikova
Publisher/date: Groundwood Books, House of Anansi Press/11 October 2016
Suitable for Ages: 4-7 & older
Themes/Topics: Wonder, friendship, courage, mice, cats, social situations
Opening: “This is how it was…A lonely mouse lived in a small house beside a great palace. In the great palace lived a cat.”
Brief Synopsis: Night after night, a lonely mouse on the roof of a small house and a cat in a castle tower stare at each other. The mouse wonders whether the cat is a friend or foe, and, conquering his fear, sets off to discover the answer.
Links to Resources:
- Discuss or draw pictures of animal species that generally are friends. Why do they get along? Do the same for species that generally are foes. Why do they fight or avoid each other?
- Discuss visual and verbal clues that help you decide whether someone or something is a friend or foe (and why sometimes the clues can be misleading);
- Describe a time you overcame fear to discover or find something.
Why I Like this Book:
This is a simple story, told with straightforward prose, but with a fairy tale aspect – “This is how it was…” It’s also an ambiguous tale, as judgments about the nature of others often are.
The muted palate of grays and creams with a few pops of reds and yellows furthers the air of mystery in this quiet book. Readers/listeners aren’t quite sure where the palace and small house are or when the story takes place. We don’t know whether the cat is lonely, too. And we know little about their lives apart from the nightly encounter: is the cat a Rapunzel character or a princess happy in the tower; does the smallness of the house represent poverty or just difference from the imposing palace. Neither author nor illustrator answer these questions, but I think that’s ok. Friend or Foe? presents characters that wonder and enables readers and listeners to ponder these questions, too. Many interesting family and classroom discussions inevitably will take place after reading this tale of would-be friends, or foes.
A Note about Craft:
As mentioned above, Friend or Foe? is a tale filled with ambiguity. At its heart, it is an examination of friendship: how do we discover and assess whether someone is a friend or foe. But rather than placing the two potential friends together, as is the case with most picture books examining friendship, Sobel separates the two, leaving the pair, and the readers/listeners, with only visual clues to answer the question.
Setting is a key character in the story. The pair are separated not by a busy road or body of water that is difficult to cross. Rather, the “palace had only one entrance, and it was carefully guarded.” “Not even the cat” could enter or leave, but the mouse noticed a tiny hole. After squeezing through this hole, the mouse still had to climb to the top of a tower, because not just a wall but also vertical distance separate the pair. Could this vertical distance be a metaphor for class difference? I don’t know, but this detail lends an interesting layer to this tale.
I received an advance copy of Friend or Foe? from the publisher; the opinions and observations expressed in this review are my own and were not influenced by anyone.
This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Books list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!