During this season of Advent, as we prepare for the celebration of God’s gift of love to our world, we wanted to share our own gifts with you, our faithful readers. Several of our regular writers were asked to share either one of their favorite Christmas books, or just a favorite children’s book that they love, and those will be posted during the next few weeks. These ‘bonus’ writings will not follow our normal review format, but we share them with you in hopes that you may discover a new book and learn to love it as our writers do!
Title: The Big Orange Splot
Author: Daniel Manus Pinkwater
Illustrator: Daniel Manus Pinkwater
Publisher: Hastings House, Publishers
Audience: Ages 4-8
Probably every family has a few children’s books that have been read so many times, their characters have permanently affected the family lexicon, much to the perplexed stares of those outside the fold. Curious George’s Man with the Yellow Hat was like that for us (“Whatever you do, don’t get into trouble!” we say to small children and cats when we see them enter a room full of breakables), and so were Punch and Judy (“Where’s the baby?” one of us yells when we can’t find something. “I threw it out the window! I thought you might be passing by!” replies another in his or her best Cockney accent).
Perhaps one of our family’s most beloved children’s book characters, though, is the bald and mustachioed Mr. Plumbean from Daniel Pinkwater’s 1977 picture book, The Big Orange Splot. Mr. Plumbean lives on a neat street of identical two-story brick homes, we learn within the first couple of pages of the book. By the third double-page spread tragedy occurs: a seagull drops a can of bright orange paint on Mr. Plumbean’s house, which leaves a huge starburst of color on his roof. “Ooooh! Too bad!” his neighbors say. “Mr. Plumbean will have to paint his house again.”
And so he does. However, Mr. Plumbean buys more brightly colored paint and turns his house into a canvas for a pop art explosion. When I read this book aloud to children and turn the page to reveal the house covered from foundation to roof with lions, steam shovels, elephants, pretty girls, stripes and polka dots, I pause to let it all sink in. Invariably, the children sit in silence, shocked by the anarchist wonder of it all. Then, shock turns to delight. Pinkwater’s bold, flat cartoon-style illustrations bring grins to every face. Such is not the case with Mr. Plumbean’s neighbors.
Plumbean’s neighbors, good Pharisees all, are outraged. They snort and complain to one another and then nominate one of their own to go and talk to Plumbean. “Tell him that we all liked it here before he changed his house. Tell him that his house has to be the same as ours so we can have a neat street.” Off goes this neighbor, prepared to remind Mr. Plumbean of the Law of their street. We are not privy to the specifics of this conversation, but what we do know is that they end up talking all night over lemonade, and the next morning the neighbor goes out and turns his house into a giant red and yellow ship. One by one, Mr. Plumbean’s neighbors go to talk some sense into him, and one by one, they come away after a night of conversation with their imaginations on fire, and they proceed to turn their houses into stone castles and hot air balloons, and Greek temples.
Mr. Plumbean’s quiet conversations over lemonade remind me of the sort of encounters Jesus must have had. Tax collectors and adulterous women, fishermen and Roman soldiers alike spent a little time with him and came away transformed. Their notions about the sharp boundaries of the law were turned upside down, and they heard things which freed them to imagine a new way. As Paul writes in Romans 7:6, “But now we have been released from the law, for we died to it and are no longer captive to its power. Now we can serve God, not in the old way of obeying the letter of the law, but in the new way of living in the Spirit.”
Life in the Kingdom, I think, must be a lot like living on Mr. Plumbean’s street after its transformation, when the neighbors could say, “Our street is us and we are it. Our street is where we like to be, and it looks like all our dreams.”
“It looks like all my dreams,” has been a part of my family’s lexicon for many years, and we’re grateful to Mr. Plumbean for reminding us to dream new dreams and act on them, too.
Beth Lyon-Suhring is a graduate from the Extended Campus Program at Union Presbyterian Seminary. But her real claim to fame in our minds is that she was once a children’s librarian and loves sharing stories with young children!