Pen Pal Power

Day in and day out, usually six days a week, people everywhere it is delivered check some form of a mailbox to see what has arrived.  They might have to go to the post office to open their designated space, walk to the edge of a roadway or simply step outside.  No matter how many times this is done, when first opening the door there is a hint of anticipation in the moment.  Our head is telling us the mailbox will be holding bills, sales promotion flyers or the latest welcome magazine subscription.  Our heart is hoping for a little bit more.

On those rarer-then-they-used-to-be days when a letter or unexpected package appears, it's a wee bit magical.  Our eyes stray from our name to the return address.  Who could have sent this letter or package?  What is inside? It Came In The Mail (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, June 21, 2016) written and illustrated by Ben Clanton is a fabulous journey into fantastic possibilities. 

Liam loved to get mail.

HOORAY!

Liam's dilemma is no matter how often he checks his mailbox, it's always empty.  Playing with a friend one day, a thought suddenly occurred to Liam.  This was no ordinary thought; this was a plan.  Liam decided in order to get mail, he needed to send mail.

With no particular recipient in mind, he addressed the letter and the envelope to the mailbox.  No sooner than the letter was placed inside the mailbox, it started to shimmy and shudder, making all sorts of noises.  After the sounds settled, Liam bravely opened the door.  Whoosh!  

Fire burst forth and there was a dragon; it had been delivered to Liam. This was indeed the best mail day ever!  It was instant love between the boy and his dragon.  Grateful to the mailbox, Liam wrote another letter.  He asked for more.

An assortment of things living and not living but still able to speak came through the mailbox.  And Liam, having gone so long without any mail, asked for even more.  It was like a volcanic eruption of stuff!  In fact, it was too much for Liam.

Without warning another thought popped into Liam's head. With the mailbox's help, this needed to work.  And it did.


There is playfulness in the words written by Ben Clanton.  His blend of text, correspondence and dialogue is loaded with humor appealing directly to children and those of us that are kids at heart.  By the second page I was laughing out loud.  

During the course of the narrative Clanton inserts words with double meanings, allowing different interpretations in his illustrations.  

But then, on a day much like any other,
an idea struck Liam. 

We are introduced to the kind of personality Liam has through his letter-writing and response to all the stuff he gets.  His letters express gratitude, politeness and generosity.  With the pureness of childhood Liam never questions the arrival of everything from the mailbox.  This approach by Clanton makes this title golden. Here is one of Liam's letters.

Dear Mailbox,
Thank you for the
fire-breathing dragon.
It is just what I
always wanted.
Can you send me more 
stuff? PLEASE!
Love,
Liam
P. S. You are the best
 mailbox ever!


Rendered in pencil and watercolor, and assembled digitally the fun of the illustrations begins on the matching dust jacket and book case.  Certainly readers will be wondering how the boy was able to get a dragon delivered to him in his mailbox.  On the back, to the left, letters looking as do those in the title, stamped, read

MAGIC MAIL
OPEN CAREFULLY.

This text appears above and to the right of Liam nearly buried under all the mailbox arrivals.  The ISBN appears within a postage stamp frame.  The opening and closing endpapers in tones of black and gray are a collage of old postcards and envelopes placed on pieces of notebook paper.

Heavier matte-finished paper is the canvas for Ben Clanton's images.  For many of them white space acts as an additional element focusing our attention on the more colorful items.  Envelopes and postcards are an added background for Liam and all the deliveries.  Picture sizes and perspective bring the story to the reader and endear us to Liam.  Careful readers will be rewarded with the wonderful details Clanton includes; a light bulb with wings flying onto Liam's head, scorched paper upon the dragon's appearance, multiple snails, a crown (a nod to Where The Wild Things Are?), an eye-patch wearing pig, and red postal stamps with various messages.  The text in the speech balloons matches the penmanship in Liam's letters.  

One of my many favorite illustrations shares the page with another picture.  It's at the bottom, a paper with singed edges.  The grinning dragon is extending his head and neck from the mailbox wearing the For Liam tag.  Liam standing with a blackened face and upper body, smoke coming from his head, is pointing at the dragon.  His eyes are wide and he is wearing a huge grin.  You can feel his total joy.  


It Came In The Mail written and illustrated by Ben Clanton is sure to "fire-up" imaginations of readers.  It also might produce an increase in creative letter writing to mailboxes or postal workers.  The benefits of the tactile experience of letter writing and envelope making and addressing are hard to refute, even if a dragon does not arrive in your mailbox.  (But wouldn't it be great if one did?)

To learn more about Ben Clanton and his other work be sure to visit his website by following the link attached to his name.  By following this link to the publisher's website you can view interior images from the book.  Ben Clanton is interviewed at Writers' Rumpus.  You might want to pair this book with Sergio Ruzzier's A Letter For Leo.

UPDATE:  Ben Clanton is interviewed at Avery and Augustine July 22, 2016 about this title.

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