By Casey Wilson
A medallion on the front of Stephen Colbert’s I Am a Pole (And So Can You!) proudly declares it to be a “Caldecott Eligible Book”. If you look carefully at the medal, you can see Colbert riding a flying pig – a self-aware indication of just what must happen for this book to move from “Caldecott Eligible” to “Caldecott Nominated”. This is not the next children’s classic – its movie rights probably won’t even sell, despite the plea to Pixar on the jacket flap – but it has been written and illustrated with a keen eye to picture book conventions.
I Am a Pole is about one pole’s quest to discover just what he is meant to do. Like many picture books, we are taken through a series of failed attempts at finding purpose – ski pole, maypole, tadpole – until he ultimately discovers that he has the greatest purpose of all: to be an American flag pole. It’s a familiar pattern and a familiar outcome that we have been trained to expect from many of our mainstream picture books.
But most mainstream picture books don’t have a stripper in them. Or jokes in footnotes. Or references to pagan rituals. Even the illustrations contain pointed commentary about corporate sponsorship. From cover to cover, Colbert and his collaborators (all refreshingly named outright on the copyright page) take on the conventions of picture books, and do what they can to both embrace and subvert them. Because there is sincerity here, underneath all the levels of irony that come with anything created by Colbert’s television persona. When the characters all salute the flagpole at the end, it’s out of respect, not just out of humor.
And when one of those characters is Maurice Sendak, it becomes clear that this book is sincere in its love of children’s books, too. This book has nowhere near the depth of the work of the man who is quoted on the cover as saying, “The sad thing is, I like it!” but it clearly adores both him and his books. Sendak’s author bio for Colbert is, perhaps, the best part of the book. I Am a Pole came out the same day that Sendak passed away, and Colbert rightly dedicated an entire segment of his show to unaired moments from his interview with Sendak from a few months back. Colbert told his viewers that, if they were unfamiliar with Sendak, they should read his books – and that they shouldn’t be intimidated, because they have a lot of pictures.
I actually can’t say the same for I Am a Pole. If you’re unfamiliar with Colbert and his show, the book will make little sense, even with the pictures. And it does live up to the second Sendak blurb on the cover – it is “terribly, supremely ordinary.”
But after Sendak, isn’t everything?
Casey is a PhD student.