Nice Try, Charlie!
Nice Try, Charlie!
“Not so fast!” Aunt Myrtle yells. Aunt Myrtle always yells.
Charlie looks up at her with raised eyebrows.
Aunt Myrtle looks down and yells again, “Does that pie belong to you?”
And so Charlie closes up the box and sets off to find the owner.
In Nice Try, Charlie!, Matt James has captured a snapshot of a day in the life of Charlie, a man on a mission. Charlie has found a pie and sets off to find its rightful owner. Readers may be familiar with James’ previous children’s books, The Funeral and The Stone Thrower, or with his illustrated adaptation of the Stan Rogers song “Northwest Passage”. In Nice Try, Charlie!, James takes on themes of community and friendship with a distinctive style.
“Charlie finds things.” This is the first thing readers know about Charlie. On the title page, readers see his silhouette pushing a cart, and, on the next page, his bearded face grins out from beneath a wide-brimmed hat as he puts on his boots. The implication is that Charlie is homeless or underhoused and goes around the city collecting things he finds, sometimes in the garbage. Will children read Charlie as homeless or underhoused? That will likely depend on the child and the child’s life experience. I think it is quite likely that older children and those who have grown up in cities may read him as such, but children who are from suburban and rural areas, or who are younger, may not. Does that have a bearing on the reading? It has no bearing on a child’s understanding of the narrative, but this context would influence discussion of the book and its themes.
Nice Try, Charlie! might be a good way to talk about homelessness and poverty with younger children. It is also a good jumping off point for humanizing the homeless and underhoused. The focus is not on Charlie’s situation, or really even his occupation, but on his kindness and the connections he makes in the community. He is self-reliant and quick to share, often using the things he finds to solve others’ problems. This is a tale that gently pushes back at stereotypes that will, unfortunately, likely already be ingrained in many children, especially those growing up in areas where homelessness and poverty are less visible.
As for the success of the work as a whole, there are some areas of concern. James seems to have a good grasp of picture books, not relying too heavily on text and letting pictures help tell the story. He also includes some comic-style panels which work well. There are some jumps and shifts in both layout and text that are slightly jarring and potentially confusing, though. For instance, there is one spread that features an image of a young girl looking through a fence saying, “Nice try, Charlie!”. The previous page only shows Charlie, in silhouette, walking down the street while a ball is pictured mid-bounce. A child might understandably be confused by this. What has Charlie done to warrant the young girl’s exclamation? The following page shows what has happened through panels (the young girl seemingly lost her ball and Charlie attempts, not very successfully, to return it). While this format (an image on the left page, followed by text on the right) is familiar to young readers who read early chapter books or even early readers, up until this point every spread in Nice Try, Charlie! has read left page first, then right. Because there is text on the left page in a speech bubble (also used elsewhere in the book), it only makes sense that this is how a child would read it. After this spread, the book reverts to its previous format of left-then-right reading or two-page spreads.
Another instance occurs within the story, itself. While the text, itself, is not incredibly complex, it is likely that young readers will need help navigating Nice Try, Charlie!. At one point in the story, Charlie reunites with his friend Steve and has the following exchange: “‘Are you okay?’ Charlie asks him. ‘I don’t know,’ says Steve. They are both feeling kind of sad. ‘Yeah,’ says Charlie. ‘It’s hard to know.’” This is a section of the text that I can see spurring lots of good discussion, but, for a young reader who has not seen any event take place that might give Charlie a reason for feeling sad (he has just come from making a bird bath out of a tire for some birds), it may be somewhat disorienting. While neither of these examples ruins the reading of the book, it is small details like these that can make a big difference in a child’s reading experience.
The illustrations in the book are beautiful. Whether they will appeal to young children, I’m not sure, but older children will likely enjoy them. Things like pavement and grass have plenty of texture. Lines aren’t straight and precise; they’re organic and have a sketch-like quality. I can imagine children trying to draw Charlie themselves. Something that is particularly of note is the dimensionality of the pictures. James has used a technique of cutting out illustrations and photographing them against other illustrations or photographs to create shadow and depth. Fans of Mo Willems may be familiar with this technique as it is similar to the one used in Nanette’s Baguette which features a short “making of” the illustrations in the back of the book. While I am reviewing an electronic copy, it appears as though there is a fold-out near the end of the book. The pie box Charlie has been carrying around opens to reveal a beautiful pie, which I’m sure will delight young readers.
Nice Try, Charlie! isn’t one of those books that oozes kid appeal, but it is one that many children will likely enjoy. While there are a few small elements that may prove challenging for very young readers, those elements will also test the abilities of older readers. Charlie is a kind and relatable character, and the illustrations are unique. This book could easily be used in classrooms or the home to spark many interesting discussions. Recommended for school libraries and libraries looking to round out their collection of picture books for older readers.
Alex Matheson is a children’s librarian in Vancouver, British Columbia.