The Little Guys – written and illustrated by Vera Brosgol, Roaring Book Press, 2019
This isn’t actually a book about resistance or about strength in numbers. Then again, maybe it is. Part of the appeal of Vera Brosgol’s The Little Guys is the ambiguity of its message, or at least, the way the author and artist surprises readers expecting a more confident assertion of strength in numbers. Once you have read it, it’s hard to get its refrain out of your mind, or to look at other small and comic species in other children’s books without seeing these acorn-capped creatures, at first so sure of themselves, and then, transformed by at least a little bit of self-knowledge. It isn’t easy to describe the impact of this funny, weird, and rhythmic story.
Brosgol is an author and illustrator of both picture books and graphic novels. The text of The Little Guys is brief. An army of small beings go about their daily business, having introduced themselves as “the strongest guys in the whole forest.” Readers are ready to welcome them and to endorse their communal philosophy: “Yes, we are small. But there are a lot of us./Together we are strong, and we can get all we need.” But if you think you are going to enjoy a paean to solidarity, somewhat like Leo Lionni’s Swimmy, you are instead going to learn that these Little Guys might have an inflated sense of their own worth and, worse, will not hesitate to push others around.
The pictures are whimsical and also full of allusions to fairy tales and film. The long line of Little Guys holding hands in the “big, dark forest” recall the dancing mushrooms of Disney’s Fantasia. The forest animals, from little birds to a frightened owl to a parent and child bear duo about to enjoy a nice meal of fish, could populate the sweetest children’s film or story book or the darkest folk tale. In either case, they are no match for the Little Guys. The font gets bigger as they become increasingly more threatening, chanting their now menacing slogans: “None for you! All for us! Hand it over to the Little Guys!”
Eventually, the book switches into reverse. Maybe even a large number of Little Guys with overblown expectations are still little. Maybe recognizing that they need to share is a better bet than assaulting bears. The relief that readers will feel at the end is tempered by the knowledge of how far the Little Guys got in their previous incarnation as an out-of-control army. Is this a cautionary tale about fascism? If so, Brosgol emphasizes how fragile the continuum is of finding all you need for yourself, denying it to others, and finally accepting the need to share. We are small. And yes, there are a lot of us.