Nothing to Fear at the Post Office

I Do Not Like Yolanda – written and illustrated by Zoey Abbott
Tundra Books, 2021

It’s always exciting to encounter a children’s book that is truly original.  Zoey Abbott’s new picture book, I Do Not Like Yolanda, did not arrive out of nowhere. Of course, it has precedents in other books that deal with children’s baseless, yet still very real, fears about different people or phenomena.  It’s not the first children’s book to feature postage stamps in many of the pictures; the great author and illustrator Rosemary Wells has a used these miniature works of art in many of her stories.  But Bianca, the young heroine of Abbott’s book, and Yolanda, her mistaken source of anxiety, are one hundred percent individuals.  Here is a child living in a contemporary, diverse, San Francisco neighborhood, as we can see both on the return address of her envelopes and the vibrant urban neighborhood of the pictures.  She is also an avid philatelist (stamp collector), and an all-around artistic spirit.  Yolanda is a devoted employee of the local post office, but Bianca, as children will, has developed a frightening fantasy about this kind woman who sells her stamps.  Children will absolutely relate to the way Bianca’s mind works.

The book’s title is a straightforward declaration, and it presents a mystery: why?  Bianca knows exactly what she likes, even loves: writing letters and collecting stamps.  Why is the lady behind the post office counter so terrifying? Abbott doesn’t attempt to invent a logical answer to this question.  We meet Bianca in a two-page spread featuring postage stamps one side, including a U.S. airmail commemorative honoring Amelia Earhart and the famous Penny Black, the first British prepaid stamp for mailing letters.  Bianca stands on a small stepstool to reach the stamp album on a crowded set of shelves; she is obviously determined and purposeful.  She’s not singularly obsessed with one activity, though, as we can see from both the other items on the shelves and those on her table: a polka-dotted llama candle holder, some origami in progress, compartments of colored beads. Bianca is an artist as much as a collector. Her stamps represent not only objects to acquire; “They are cream colored with beautiful dark ink and portraits of queens, villains and exotic birds.”

Bianca writes many letters, carefully addressing and decorating the envelopes with drawings. Then comes the hard part: completing her transaction with Yolanda.  The lady weighs her heavier letters with suspicious diligence, and her fingernails are really long and brightly polished. (That last attribute is the link to reality; the nails do look a bit over-the-top.) Even children’s most irrational fears usually have some identifiable basis. It’s a shame to ruin what should be a lovely experience because the post office seems really friendly, with customers of every age and background socializing and helping one another. Too bad that Yolanda is an ogre, who “has probably eaten up dozens of people by now.”

Every picture in the book works perfectly. The ink, gouache, and colored pencil pictures are rendered in earth-tones, with white background and shadows helping to tell the story.  (In the front matter, Abbott thanks Olive Wagner for providing “whittled stick-pens used in the book.). Objects are drawn with loving detail. Facial features are simple, but Bianca’s wide eyes and small mouth express a great deal.  The suspected villain, Yolanda, finally escapes from Bianca’s wrong impression of her with a wide smile as she holds up a copy of Babette’s Feast, the novel by Isak Dinesen which becomes a link of friendship between her and her young customer. It’s obviously true that few children will have heard of the Danish author, her novel, or the movie it inspired, but that doesn’t matter.  Abbott includes it as a personal homage, and adults reading the book might be fans of Dinesen. The point of including this reference is that it is both personal and accessible.  Two people, an adult and a child, form a bond of friendship after a long period of misunderstanding.  Yolanda shows Bianca and book and explains how much fun she had preparing a meal based on the one described there.  Like Bianca, Yolanda has a creative side to her personality.  I Do Not Like Yolanda is stamped with quirky details within recognizable experiences. It’s a true original.

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