I’ve always been fascinated by Homer’s Odyssey. Homer Simpson, that is. What amazed me most about The Simpsons, especially in the early days, was that it was one of the most popular shows in America. And yet, it was so subversive. How could a show in which authority of every ilk is not only constantly questioned, but deftly skewered -- usually simply by taking it at face value -- play so well in Peoria?
What brought this question back to mind recently is, of course, the children’s picture book I Want My Hat Back.
Like The Simpsons, it tells a funny story that is about far more than what happens on the surface. And like The Simpsons, it’s layered, so if you’re four, you’ll love it. If you’re older (and more sophisticated), you’ll love it for decidedly different reasons.
How is this possible? Because both do exactly what a story must: tell us something about how to navigate the human condition (even if, in the case of I Want My Hat Back, you’re a bear).
And the brilliance of I Want My Hat Back is that it is, actually, the darker of the two.
On the surface it’s about whether the bear gets his hat back (that’s the plot). But what it’s really about is how a person can be too trusting, the danger of taking things at face value, and how sometimes even doing the right thing can leave you feeling as guilty as the person who, um, stole your hat.
How does a 32 page picture book with fewer than 300 words get all that across?
By creating a plot that forces the bear to confront the internal problem that’s holding him back so vividly that we’re able to intuit every internal turn. And so we watch the bear politely inquire of a snake, a turtle, a rabbit, a fox, and a beaver whether they have seen his hat. When they say no, he takes them at their word. Even though, as far as we’re concerned, the rabbit -- who is in fact wearing a hat -- doth protest too much when he vehemently asserts that he would never steal a hat. Hmmm, we think, there’s more here than meets the eye. This puts us a step ahead of the bear, which makes us feel clever, and that feels good. So does our sense of anticipation, as we wonder whether the bear will figure it out.
Spoiler alert: he does. It’s when a deer asks him what his hat looks like that he realizes that he has, in fact, seen his hat. On the rabbit’s head! In a blinding flash of “Aha!” he finally understands that it’s one thing to be trusting, it’s quite another to be so trusting that you ignore what’s right there in front of you.
And so off he races to confront the rabbit. When he does -- because we’ve been privy to the bear’s “Aha!” moment -- the look that passes between them speaks volumes. The bear has realized his mistake, and so, clearly, has the rabbit.
We feel the tension. We know something big is about to happen.
In the next picture, the bear is indeed wearing his beloved hat. As for the rabbit? Well, we’re left to draw our own conclusion when a squirrel asks the bear if he’s seen the rabbit, and the bear vehemently denies it. I would never eat a rabbit, he says. Uh oh.
At least, “Uh oh” is what we big kids think. Leaving the four years olds among us to laugh the laugh of the innocent, blissfully unaware of the fact that the bear may have gone a tad too far in retrieving his hat. Because like The Simpsons, while I Want My Hat Back plays on several levels at once, it always plays on a level that gives us insight into what – when push comes to shove -- makes us human, regardless of how old we are.
And there you have it, the layered mechanics of story, as revealed by a simple – and deceptively deep – picture book for four year olds.