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Socialism for the Under-Fives

The author/illustrator duo, Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, have produced some of our family's favorite picture books--The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom, A Squash and a Squeeze, and The Snail and the Whale. (I identify so strongly with Donaldson and Scheffler's plucky little snail that reading that last one always leaves me a bit tearful!) Although known in America, they haven't had the acclaim they enjoy in the UK, where Donaldson was named Children's Laureate for 2011-2013.

While in an American book store recently, I realized that one of their books, The Smartest Giant in Town, had been subtly Americanized. Set in a world where giants and normal-sized people coexist with anthropomorphized animals, The Smartest Giant in Town is the story of George, the "scruffiest giant in town." George notices a "smart" new shop selling giant-sized clothing, and decides to give himself a makeover. He buys "a smart shirt, a smart pair of trousers, a smart belt, a smart stripy tie, some smart socks with diamonds up the sides, and a pair of smart shiny shoes." All of a sudden George, who started out wearing an old patched up gown and sandals, starts to look kind of like a banker on casual Friday.

In British English, "smart" means stylish. A fashionable person, store, or article of clothing might be described as "smart," whereas an intelligent person would be called "bright" or "clever." Americans use "smart" only in the sense of "intelligent." So the American edition of The Smartest Giant in Town has been renamed The Spiffiest Giant in Town. But George doesn't stay spiffy for long.

As he makes his way home in his new clothes, he encounters a series of animals in crisis--and solves each of their problems by giving away a piece of his outfit. The first animal is a giraffe, who complains that his neck is cold. So George gives him his tie to wear as a scarf. Next, he meets a goat whose boat has a ripped sail. George gives him the shirt off his back, and it makes a wonderful sail. George is pleased at first, and walks along singing to himself: "My tie is a scarf for a cold giraffe, My shirt's on a boat as a sail for a goat, But look me up and down--I'm the smartest giant in town!" After giving away one shoe, one sock, and his belt to three other animals in need, George changes his tune--he's the coldest giant in town. It's too late to go back to the shop, which has closed for the day. But outside he finds "my dear old gown and sandals!" which are more comfortable than his smart/spiffy new wardrobe anyway. He puts them on gleefully and goes home, where he finds all the animals he has helped waiting with a handwritten thank-you note and "a very fine crown, to go with the sandals and gown of the KINDEST giant in town."

I like this book--its message of sharing and helping those in need is a classic playground lesson that extends to the rest of life. But I was amused to find a one-star review on Amazon USA reading (in part): "This book teaches social irresponsibility and the virtues of begging!" Whereas one UK reviewer came right out and compared George to Jesus. Maybe it was the sandals...

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