by Sam Juliano
“Chugga Chugga Chugga Beans Beans Beans”
The conceit in Phillip C. Stead and Matthew Cordell’s delightfully anarchic Special Delivery is grandiose and economically prohibitive. A determined and resourceful young girl named Sadie worries about her dear Great Aunt Josephine, who is leading a life of solitude. What better way to raise her spirits than to send her -via the local post office- a good-natured pachyderm. She leads this largest of land creatures to a cheerfully chaotic outdoor depot where the clerk named Jim receives the request matter-of factly. In a lampoon of unstinting post office procedure, which in this case is ludicrously non-applicable on every count, Sadie advises him not to bend, drop or shake him, as he is fragile and might break. After calculating the approximate expense Jim tells Sadie that she will need a real lot of stamps to transport her elephant. When she asks how many the undaunted postman rolls out a wheelbarrow overflowing with stamps that recalls the zany scene in Woody Allen’s Bananas when workers wheel out thousands of sandwiches to feed a guerrilla army. Sadie soon realizes the folly of her idea and moves on to ask a pilot named Mary if she’d loan the girl her airplane, while showing her the daunting proposition. Much like the postman, the pilot acts like this is a run-of-the-mill request, though she informs the girl it will require a lot of fuel. Just as quick as one can shout “Goooooooo” they are off in a twin engine plane, but soon are interrupted by the telling sounds of sput sputt sputter and koff koff koff. In a think bubble, Sadie realizes they are running out of fuel. The plane quickly descends, and after some sounds denoting engine failure, winds up in a river, where an alligator as a guide down this jungle waterway. They soon hear “Chugga chugga chugga, whooo-whoooo.” Sound cognizant students may immediately conjure up memories of Brian Floca’s 2013 Caldecott Medal winning Locomotive, which like Special Delivery can be framed as a book about a road journey.
Sadie expresses her gratitude to the alligator, and promises she’ll send on a letter and a giant stick of bubble gum, as the next leg of the trip is negotiated by rail. Monkey bandits appear, but they are soon seduced by our heroine’s resolve to join them in an increasingly immersive bean smorgasbord visually transmuted in comic style vignettes, and driven by an infectious chant that never fails to bring students fully into this read aloud equation: Chugga chugga chugga Beans beans beans. The only problem as Sadie soon finds out is that she has helped create serious bean addicts. Hearing the patented sounds of an ice cream truck stopped at a train track, Sadie opts for ice cream, sharing with her ecstatic entourage. The last leg of this unusual expedition is managed by the driver of the ice cream truck, who escorts the two travelers to her anything-but-solitary outdoor sanctuary that serves as an affectionate homage to Mr. Stead’s Caldecott Medal winning A Sick Day For Amos Magee which he created with his wife Erin. Of course picture book lovers of benign animal friends will smilingly recall the 1965 Caldecott winner May I Bring A Friend by Beni Montresor and Beatrice Schenk de Regniers, which celebrated (like Special Delivery) human and wildlife camaraderie. Enchanted readers will find out in the enthralling reunion tapestry that Sadie is responsible for much more than her latest gift. As several in the company enjoy hot chocolate (one affectionately recalls William Stieg) Sadie is busy putting together her promised letter, which is seen as a happy camper immersed in bubble gum chewing, as the strains of Chugga Chugga Chugga Beans Beans Beans waft in the air.
Cordell has done some marvelous work throughout his career, but this teaming with Stead has brought out one of his finest illustrative achievements. He keeps his pen and ink and watercolor drawings airy, spirited and fully attuned to the comic vision of the work. His sketches are not confined by any boundaries and sometimes just bounce right off the page, again in collusion with Stead’s lawless narrative arc. The illustrator makes a grand entrance in the quick dialogue between the two kids, signaling the story’s premise. The words are almost scribbled, with kid friendly, archaic line saturation. Cordell’s first great drawing is the one at the outdoor post office, which links a human’s oneness with nature. The vivid scene is one of bureaucratic clutter, though birds find it a place of refuge. Cordell’s style recalls Peter Spier’s work in that a quick glance will never do justice. Few kids will be able to resist laughing at the plane take-off with Sadie and her elephant sporting flight glasses. Green watercolor brings out the expansive sputtering spread, while the crash is rendered in disjointed urgency, yet tinged with humor by way of Cordell’s scribbling. The expression on the alligator is a hoot.
After the crash along the river bank the illustrator offers up richer watercolors, with both the blissful ride down the river and the switch off to the train providing opportunity for some of the most exquisite art in the book. The encroaching monkeys on the freight car carrying bananas are amusing but also menacing, especially in view of the elephant’s frightened face, while Sara is looking in the other direction. The chugga chugga beans beans spread is barrels of fun, exhibiting a series of miniature vignettes to the bouncing rhythm of the irresistible coda. The final illustration showing Nana and her large throng is marvelously detailed and colored. Boxes from Sadie to her Aunt confirm this is only the most recent activity, and more than any other illustration in the book it showcases the successful integration of human and animals in sublime color. The last scene with the alligator and the gum bubble winds up this zany narrative with a final hearty guffaw.
Cordell may well have won 2015 picture book honors for the most fabulous dust jacket cover of the year with his depiction of the famous ultra-rare “Jenny” stamp of an inverted Curtiss JN-4 airplane that first appeared in post offices on May 10, 1918. Only one pane of a hundred was ever found, and auctions for even a single unhinged stamp have fetched over $900,000 at philatelic auctions. Of course the stamp is modified to show our two fearless marauders in the plane pictured upside down that gleefully recalls Stanley Kramer’s slapstick classic It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Beyond the fantastic dust jacket is the book’s spectacular cover, one that showcases everything and everyone but the kitchen sink in a glorious wrap around canvas of the all the possibilities of philately for imaginative collectors of all ages.
Stead has released two acclaimed picture books this year -the other was a collaboration with his wife Erin -the splendid Lenny & Lucy, but to this writer his teaming with Cordell is tops.
Special Delivery may well be the year’s disarming work, a book that straddles the line between humor and silliness, but in the end brings victory to the former intent. Having a selfless heroine who is kind and indomitable makes this eccentric, indeed irreverent book a wonderful hybrid of humanism and comedy. After the Caldecott committee members catch their breath, and settle down their sides they are urged to look again with renewed austerity.
Note: This is the eighteenth review in the 2015 Caldecott Contender series that will be published at this site over the coming months, up until the January 11th scheduled awards date. The books that will be examined are not necessarily ones that are bonafide contenders in the eyes of the voting committee, but rather the ones this writer feels should be. The order they will be presented is arbitrary as some of my absolute favorites will be presented near the end.