Wheels, No Wheels – written and illustrated by Shannon McNeill
Tundra Books, 2022
For adults, there are endless ways to categorize the world, but for young children the range may be more limited. There are animals and people, adults and kids, places where I live and places where I don’t live, things to eat and things to not eat. O.K. There are quite a few possibilities, but they are still less confusing than for adults, in general. In Shannon McNeill’s Wheels, No Wheels, the author and artist suggests one pair of potentially overlapping objects: things with wheels and those without them. Some things move and others don’t. Within the world of moving things, there are wheels, and no wheels. That is the inventive and funny premise for this picture book.
First, a llama has no wheels, but a bike has wheels. Like the other initial images in the book, these first appear as static objects, the very definition of each one. The llama stands in profile, eating a leaf; this is an animal that chews its cud.
The bicycle is viewed from the same angle, but it has wheels, a basket, a kickstand, and no leaf to chew. Differences that are so obvious as not to merit notice by an adult may be very new to children; McNeill acknowledges that by the way in which the sequence of events develops. The farmer, a child in overalls and a straw hat, becomes surprised and frustrated when the respective objects don’t act in the way which their qualities should predict.
All of a sudden, a cat, turtle, and llama all have vehicles, and the farmer is left behind. Children often have trouble keeping up with bigger or more mobile beings. Here the farmer is excited to encounter an ox pulling a cart, concluding “Here’s a friend who walks and rolls.” An animal and an inanimate object together become a friend, and the farmer’s problem seems to be solved. Kids love to find solutions! But when an odd assortment of animals crosses the street, the incredible speed of the ox, cart, and farmer combination becomes a problem. The mode of transportation collapses, both wheels and no-wheels dissolving into a blur of speed. Allusions to folklore and jokes are subtle elements of the background, reminders of “Hush Little Baby’s” ox and cart, and the proverbial chicken crossing the road.
With bold colors, and images that accelerate from static poses to chaotic motion, McNeill tells an appealing story with a point. Some ways of interpreting the world seem reliable, but they are subject to change. Even wheels vs. no wheel may need adjustments and a new perspective. One minute, “Nobody has wheels,” and the next, “Everyone has wheels!” Children have an adaptive approach to reality, and Wheels, No Wheels packages that truth with humor and understanding.