Finding a book as perfect in its simplicity as, "A Splendid Friend, Indeed" is near-impossible. I should know. As a children's librarian I often have to contest with countless anxious parents who want a picture book for their kids to read, with simple words, and a simple plot. But it has to be interesting too. And beautiful to look at. And touching, they definitely want something touching. All told there are perhaps four or five books in the English language that fit such strict criteria and remain readable. Now Suzanne Bloom's book may join their ranks. Though passed over for a Caldecott (a fact that had my fellow children's librarians wrenching out their hair in clumps) the book did garner a prestigious Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Book Award. Just the same, I am of the opinion that "A Splendid Friend, Indeed" deserves a lot more press and fanfare. So here I am, blaring out the news for all to hear: COME ONE, COME ALL, TO WITNESS A PIECE OF PICTURE BOOK PERFECTION! I can't say it any plainer than that.
A polar bear is reading a book when a white duck travels down his back for a chat. The duck is deeply inquisitive. He'd love to know exactly what the polar bear is up to. The dialogue is something along the lines of, "What are you doing? Are you reading? I like to read. Do you want to hear me read?". The bear grows increasingly frustrated with the encounter and annoyed with this relentlessly cheery pest. After a bit the duck comes back with a snack he has made and a note he has written. The note reads, "I like you. Indeed I do. You are my splendid friend". The polar bear is deeply touched by the note and by the end the two are hugging alongside the words, "You are my splendid friend. My splendid friend, indeed". Then they settle down to tea and cookies.
The story is, on one level, a kind of take on sibling rivalry. Older siblings with overly enthusiastic young `uns tagging along will identify with the polar bear's longing to just be left alone by his number one fan. On another level, however, this is about dealing with someone who likes you almost too much. It's about handling people who let their emotions fly free of any and all inhibitions. At no point does the duck ever catch the polar bear's book-over-the-ears-type hints. Good thing too. When the bear stops to listen to the duck's letter he is strangely touched. What is so very remarkable about the book is for all its cuteness (and it is really very adorable) the book is not treacly or saccharine. This isn't "cute" in the way a Precious Moments figurine is cute. It's cute because it strikes a real emotional cord AND happens to be lovely to look at and read at the same time.
The art is actually a draw in and of itself. The first image we have of the duck is of him walking down a white, furry hill of sorts. It is, of course, the polar bear's back and does nothing to improve his mood right off the bat. All the illustrations in this book have been done in pastels and Bloom wields her colors with a highly skilled hand. The fur of the polar doesn't just look like something you could stick your hand into and feel, it also contains specks of greens and blues and purples. There's a great deal of subtlety to the book's seemingly simple images. Against the blue background the polar bear and duck are carefully outlined in colors that separate them from the deepening sky. Read the book three or four times and you begin to notice tiny details. For example, when the polar bear melts and hugs the duck at the end, the background changes from blue to a subtle reddish-purple. Without becoming cartoonish, the book is consistently interesting to the very very young and those old wise people helping them to read. Tis a visual feast.
In many ways, "A Splendid Friend, Indeed" conjures up that old classic Mirra Ginsburg book, "The Chick and the Duckling". There are also similarities to "Ginger" by Charlotte Voake. But while these two books are sweet enough in their own way, Bloom's story packs a particularly strong emotional punch. If you've an early reader or a child who's ready for the most basic of tales, consider this a must-have purchase for their personal library. A sure-fire knock-out book.