What Are You Doing, Benny? – Cary Fagan and Kady Macdonald Denton, Tundra Books, 2019
Here is a book (due out in April 2019) about the paradox of being a younger sibling. You worship the older brother or sister, regardless of the disdain with which he or she treats you. You struggle to gain his respect and attention. You feel you can never live up to his peerless standard. Yet, usually, you learn that the person you adore also adores you…kind of. Cary Fagan and Kady Macdonald Denton have created an utterly believable and warmly understated version of this story in What Are You Doing, Benny? Young readers and formerly young caregivers will relate to this lovely story about temporarily unrequited sibling love.
Benny the fox and his little brother inhabit a typical childhood world of bicycles, puppet theaters, and paper airplanes. The narrator, beginning on the page one and with dogged (foxy?) persistence throughout the book, addresses his older brother hopefully: “Benny?” He want to know what Benny is doing, offering his help and asking to be included. But no matter how talented the younger fox claims to be at building forts or making potions, Benny rejects his offers, without even an explanation, as if the worthlessness of his little brother’s attempts to join him were so obvious they need not be addressed.
Finally, Benny’s little brother wises up, and produces his own puppet show, with the crocodile and frog hand puppets enacting the sibling drama. Before you know it, Benny discovers that collaboration is better than power and control.
Fagan uses few words to convey the little brother’s eagerness and his resourceful approach. “I like the way you use mustard and sliced chicken and mayonnaise and pickles…I’m hungry, too. So can I have a sandwich, Benny?” He never gives up; eventually his relentless cheerfulness, and Benny’s boredom, work: “So you do want to put on a puppet show with me, Benny?” he asks in disbelief. Denton’s pictures are funny and poignant at the same time. She captures the human child inside the foxes’ characters. The cover shows the little brother pulling himself up on Benny’s reclining figure, and trying to make eye contact as Benny snidely looks aside. Their fox den is full of the clutter of human childhood, but framed by the cloudy pastel of the outer world. My favorite picture is a view of the interior of their home, which includes a drum set and bicycles, but also a fully supplied artist’s desk, with colored bottles, lamps, and a wastebasket overflowing with rejected drafts. It’s not so much connected to the narrative, but seems to be a representation of the illustrator’s artistic process.
Any child with siblings, or any adult reader who was a sibling, will recognize herself in this book. What Are You Doing, Benny? explains to kids how, at least sometimes, painful rejection can end in a great puppet show and a sibling who respects you. Look for it as soon as it becomes available.