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  • Smile for Auntie:A Comic Performance Reviewed
  • Amy Schwartz (bio)

The Library of Congress synopsis found on the copyright page of every children's book published in the United States often reads as a comic foil for the book's actual contents. This brief summary is usually quite matter of fact as it bluntly wraps up a plot the author in all probability hoped was subtle and complex. And sometimes there is vast irony in what is left out of the statement. In the case of Smile for Auntie by Diane Paterson (Dial, 1976), we read: "Auntie tries everything she can think of to make the baby smile."

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[End Page 90]

Well, this does describe the plot. But one has only to flip back the copyright page, and glimpse the anxious portrait of Baby sucking his thumb on the title page that precedes it, to see that someone's side of the story isn't being told, that something more sinister is going on than the summary tells us. Just ask Baby.

Smile for Auntie is really a one-line joke in which two viewpoints are presented. And, as with any one-liner, much depends on the delivery. Paterson's book could easily have fallen flat if not for its author's exquisitely deliberate graphic sense. Smile for Auntie is silly, small, very elegant, and deceptively simple.

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The first person Paterson introduces us to is Auntie herself. There she is, impossible to avoid, in a straight-on headshot on the front jacket. At first glance one sees a happy, doughy-faced, babushka-covered grandmotherly presence. But when one looks again, and makes eye contact [End Page 91] with Auntie, her gaze becomes piercing, her grin rather maniacal, and we realize that Rodchenko's grandmother is in reality the Red Baron.

Open the book, and one encounters Auntie's victim on the title page. Baby, a bundle of nerves, is clutching his stomach and sucking his thumb. Then, on the dedication page, a harmonious still life of children's toys is set out for inspection. A momentary respite, but a deceptive one, given the trouble that is to follow.

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On pages four and five, the story proper begins. Auntie appears on the left-hand page, simply clad in her purple coat, mustard boots and polka-dot kerchief. She is beseeching Baby, on the facing page, to smile. There is no background, no horizon line. The square white pages operate as real space for the characters. In this opening spread, Paterson clearly defines territory, a concept which will become more and more important as the book progresses. Each character presides over precisely half of [End Page 92] each double page. The very ample Auntie occupies the whole of page four. The Uncle Fester-like, mustard-clothed, small, but defiantly un-cute Baby floats in the white space of page five. We can already sense that all this empty air surrounding Baby is not gratuitous, but rather that he needs it, all of it. The reader begins to realize what Baby already knows, that the book's gutter is the only thing holding his smotheringly possessive Auntie at bay.

Auntie's pleas build over the next eight pages. "I'll sing a song to help you smile. I'll do a little dance. I'll make funny faces at you. I'll stand on my head. I'll jump up and down. Smile just a little smile for Auntie."

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Auntie's courtship dance has begun. It is a joy to flip the pages and watch it progress. She twists and turns, jumps and rolls, expands and contracts. Each page is a happy surprise of posture and movement, flowing easily from, or mischieviously playing against, the preceding image. [End Page 93]

Twice in these last four spreads, one has reencountered Baby, answering Auntie from his right hand page with his dispairing eyes, his ever-present helpless frown—and his silence. With her canny book design and rhythmic language, Paterson makes the reader pause to allow Baby...


Additional Information

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pp. 90-96
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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