Hats Off to Carol

Carol and the Pickle Toad – written and illustrated by Esmé Shapiro
Tundra Books, 2021

Esmé Shapiro opens her latest picture book with a statement and a question about an oddly endearing girl, Carol. She wears a toad as a hat.  “Did you know,” Shapiro asks the reader, “that some people wear toads as hats?” Since the answer to that question is probably “no,” she assures you that “some do.”  To fully enjoy Shapiro’s mildly iconoclastic books, including this one, begin by accepting her premise and then enjoy the way her words and images expand the world a little bit. Carol’s physical proportions emphasize that she is a child, but also a creature of Shapiro’s rich imagination. We meet her riding a bicycle, her dark hair and big glasses almost overwhelming her face.  She is turning her head around completely so that she can see behind her, an implausible action which many kids would love to be able to perform. There is a toad sitting atop her head.

Turning the page, we observe that hats are so much a part of the city’s diversity that a toad is just one more means of self-expression. After all, people were wide-brimmed hats, Little Red Riding Hood-like pointed ones, and “big and furry” Hasidic shtreimels. A dog even wears an umbrella hat.  So Carol’s hat is only slightly off-kilter, if at all.

Readers can easily identify with her creativity, which brings along a dilemma. Carol’s hat, like a Freudian superego, tells her what to do.  (If at this point you think of Disney’s Ratatouille, where Rémy sits under Chef Linguini’s toque and directs him how to prepare the best dishes, the young chef is appreciative of the help, not frustrated by bossiness.) Carol can’t so much as ride her bicycle, let alone paint a picture her own way, without the toad’s obnoxious interference. Worse, she can’t even select delicious food at her favorite deli. 

One of Shapiro’s most playful and appealing qualities as an author and artist is her combination of themes and images in a quirky way.  This book is about children’s desire to be independent. It’s also about creativity, and about friendship. The food element emphasizes comfort.  Who wouldn’t want to order the great items on offer at Little Shapiro’s: blintzes, bagels, potato latkes, matzo ball soup, strawberry shortcake, and lettuce leaves?  (The wonderfully diverse clientele, harmonious décor, and friendly service are perfect. If only a toad on Carol’s head did not insist on ordering “a side of flies.”  Shapiro understands perfectly how to include humor for both children and adults in her stories.

But wait, this book doesn’t stay in the deli. Shapiro’s change of scenes calls to mind the way children think about experience. Carol visits a hat shop, eager to find a more liberating kind of headgear.  A lovely older woman is sewing her creation, while Carol, in wizard hat, ascends a ladder to find what she is seeking. “She was so used to being bossed about that she knew what SHE wanted.”  Once again, Shapiro’s words get to the heart of what children feel. Carol’s solution to her problem involves thinking outside of the box, and her diagram of the perfect hat gets right to the point. (image).

Cities and the outdoors also coexist in Shapiro’s imagination and in the book.  With gray city buildings in the background, Carol paints outdoors, “…all kinds of things, not just toads.” Another, presumably, wise and sympathetic old woman, with funky glasses and earrings, encourages Carol.  Who is this maternal figure? She is dressed in blue stripes which approximately match those of Carol’s outfit 7under her smock. Perhaps she is older version of Carol, as she embraces some adorable animals as well as one of Carol’s original artworks.  Shapiro depicts closeness between different kinds of people in Carol’s life, at the same time that she highlights Carol’s independence.

After further adventures and trials, Carol learns to listen to her own voice, and it’s a loud one: “With her big loud voice everything felt completely brand-new. She biked freely all about town.” Finally, she rewards herself with a trip to the deli and a wonderful feast with friends, including a man wearing a lampshade hat, a child in a bee costume, and the wonderful blue-robed lady and her pink puppies. They, as well as well as her friend the waiter, all have something in common: kindness. If fact, kindness is “fabulous,” and so is the city where Carol lives. The final two-page spread has a touch of Maira Kalman’s love of humanity and the urban world.  Even in the darkness of night, there are friends in every window, each one of them guides on Carol’s journey away from the pickle toad’s voice and towards her own.

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