The world of children’s books is piled high with tales whose main characters are eternally happy, hoppy, sunshiny creatures — their antagonists, by starkly antithetical comparison, grumble, grouch and trudge through life, forever tethered to a cloud of precipitous gloom.
But this is hardly reflective of the everyday world that little readers inhabit, where regular, real people are not always cheerful. Or alternately, not always miserable.
Mr Huff, the latest picture book from Anna Walker, is the more relatable story about the sad and the glad in each of our lives, as expressed through the use of an unwanted companion that a young boy, Bill, can’t seem to dodge: a bulky, sulky creature named – of course – Mr. Huff.
Bill’s morning starts off badly – lost socks, spilt cereal and a weather forecast portending hours of boredom stuck inside.
And then Mr Huff makes his entrance; dark and looming – a veritable thunder cloud.
As Bill’s day progresses from bad to worse, Mr. Huff grows bigger and bigger, making him all the more impossible to ignore. Then, just as the boy’s temper can take no more, both Bill – and Mr. Huff – together decide that they’ve had enough.
And so the sun begins to break through.
The affirming and wise story is just what every kid needs to hear; it’s okay to have feelings tinged with grey, and they don’t last forever. Weather shifts from day to day, even hourly – and so do our moods.
Walker’s personification of a rough mood via Mr. Huff gives shape to a concept difficult for children to grasp, but whose effects are nevertheless pervasive and hard to ignore.
A particularly affecting picture book will tell its story as much through the images as the prose – if not more so. Walker’s illustrative style – softly rendered, but undeniably poignant – easily allows the reader’s own identity and personal experience to distil itself into the characters and their journey. So exceptionally evocative is the understated artwork that Mr. Huff is really more about participation than simple one-way story-telling.
The use of colour as a narrative tool is gorgeously ingenious, too; a melancholic palette that eventually invites more vibrant hues – at first in subtle, tiny detail – as Bill’s outlook changes and his day brightens.
In the end, Mr. Huff is about attitude; choosing positivity, and accepting that it won’t always be easy. And that if it takes you a while to get there, that’s also just fine.
In the words of the author: “If you have felt clouds when the sky is blue, this book is for you”.