The Picture Book Buzz

Playing Possum - Perfect Picture Book Friday #PPBF

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Kimberly McD

You've won a copy of SOAKED! by Abi Cushman

Now, back to today's #PPBF choice.

I was immediately intrigued by the cover of this book when it was announced. Alfred and those overalls are so adorable. And since "playing possum" means feigning death, until a threat moves on, I was extremely curious to see how this idea was employed in a picture book.

Jennifer Black Reinhardt masterfully created a story that can appeal to a broad range of children, and adults, since even the most outgoing and effervescent of personalities are sometimes shy. The gentle, sparse text and soft, expressive illustrations beautifully combine to create a special friendship story encouraging patience and understanding of ourselves and others.

Playing Possum

Author/Illustrator: Jennifer Black Reinhardt

Publisher: Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2020)

Ages: 4-7

Informational Fiction

Themes:

Friendship, shyness, animals, defensive behaviors, and patience.

Synopsis:

Meeting strangers makes shy possum Alfred anxious, and he plays dead. So he has trouble making friends—until Sophia the armadillo reveals that when she gets anxious, she rolls up in a ball. A witty friendship tale inspired by animal behavior. In this winsome tale, Alfred, who plays dead, and Sophia, who rolls up in a ball, stand in for shy or anxious humans whose discomfort keeps them from fitting in. Jennifer Black Reinhardt has cast animals with defense mechanisms as characters to tell an imaginative, endearing story about learning to make friends by mastering fear and shyness. Alfred and Sofia open up to each other and go on to help other creatures who have social difficulties by practicing patience, forgiveness, and friendship—tools for overcoming the barriers that keep us from connecting with others. An author’s note lists real animals and their defensive behaviors.

Opening Lines:

Alfred was born a possum.

And when a possum feels nervous,

it freezes and plays dead.

This was unfortunate for Alfred.

He was a very nervous possum.

What I LOVED about this book:

Sometimes, one of the best mirrors is a non-threatening surrogate. Watching a young tiger, Muppets, and even a train learn to navigate friendships and emotions can let a child "safely" walk in another's shoes. Poor Alfred's experiences of being frozen overnight at school, during swimming, or when meeting others is extreme enough to be humorous, while still relatable enough to engender empathy.

© Jennifer Black Reinhardt, 2020.

On a side note, this a wonderful mentor text for examining how the illustrations magnify and expand the story. The text above merely states, "So he did not do well at school." The subtle moon and stars, owls, and empty desks tell us Alfred's still frozen late into the night. A large portion of the story is told through Jennifer's gorgeous illustrations. On subsequent reads, the kids will enjoy searching for the various animals hiding throughout the story.

I adore how Jennifer first shows Alfred meeting Sophia (an armadillo) in a spread zoomed in on a bookcase, as they are reaching for "Nothing to Fear" and " Fear Less," which feels like it could be any self-help bookcase in a library or part of a school.

© Jennifer Black Reinhardt, 2020.

However, over the course of two spreads, as Alfred & Sofia play dead and curl up then unfreeze and unfurl, the illustrations zoom out farther and farther, until we find Alfred, Sophia, and the bookcase are all part of an almost magical, tree-lined glen.

© Jennifer Black Reinhardt, 2020.

Having discovered a kindred spirit, Alfred and Sophie patiently grow their friendship. Once they trusted each other, "Alfred hardly ever froze and Sophia was rarely round." A bit more relaxed, they discovered an octopus (with an adorable flowered beach cap!), a fainting goat, porcupine, chameleon, and a number of other animals plagued with their own defensive problems. I hope you'll check out the wonderful interweaving of humor and facts as they all explore making friends.

The inclusion of an author's note on "truth and imagination," as well as a glossary of the starring animals and their defensive behaviors, adds a wonderful factual element to a great bibliotherapy book on social-emotional skills and friendship. Overall, this is a wonderful book that should be included in every library.

Resources:

- draw a picture or write a story about a time you felt shy. What helped you feel better?

- have you ever waited to a snail to come out of its shell or a shy kitten or puppy to come play? What do you think made a difference?

- make a list or draw a picture of ways you could help a shy friend or new kid.

- make your own Alfred (https://www.cindyderosier.com/2016/09/cardboard-tube-opossom.html) and Sophia (https://www.daniellesplace.com/html/armadillo-crafts.html) *[Scroll to the bottom to make one that can roll up].*

If you missed it, check out my interview with Jennifer Black Reinhardt and Alfred on Monday (here).

This post is part of a series by authors and KidLit bloggers called Perfect Picture Book Fridays. For more picture book suggestions see Susanna Leonard Hill's Perfect Picture Books.

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