Written by Arthur Yorinks, Illustrated by Richard Egielski
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986
Awards: Caldecott Medal (1987)
Al, a nice man, a quiet man, a janitor, lived in one room on the West Side with his faithful dog, Eddie.
The plot in a nutshell: A janitor and his dog accept an offer of a better life from a mysterious bird and they find that paradise comes with a price
I was intrigued by the cover of Hey, Al which features a janitor and his dog in a hallway full of exotic and fantastic birds. There is an ostrich, a dodo, a puffin, a flamingo, a kiwi and even one of those drawings that can look like a duck or a rabbit, depending on how you look at it. I’m a bird lover, so I was really excited to read this book. It’s also a Caldecott medal winner, which is usually a reliable indicator. For me, though, this one was a big disappointment.
Mainly, I felt that the story didn’t work. Al and Eddie hate their broken down apartment and complain about their lives. A giant bird takes them to an island in the sky, entirely populated by birds, where everything is wonderful. They have plenty of everything and enjoy a relaxing lifestyle. But it all goes sour when they begin to turn into birds themselves. Panicked, they fly home and decide to fix up their apartment, with a new appreciation for what they have.
I love the lesson, but wanted the bird element to make more sense. Why did the birds bring Al and Eddie to the island? Were they all former disgruntled humans? And what was the purpose in Al and Eddie turning into birds? In Pinocchio, the boys on Pleasure Island turned into donkeys because they were ‘making asses of themselves,’ and we saw how the people who sent them there were benefitting from the donkeys. In Hey, Al, I was missing the connection and it made that whole section feel convoluted.
Richard Egielski’s artwork is undeniably wonderful. The pictures of Al and Eddie in their little apartment are drawn in small boxes, to emphasize the feeling of being trapped, always with a little something extending outside the border that hints toward the outside world. The colors are dull and lifeless, so in the picture where the giant toucan shows up to invite Al and Eddie to come with him, the colors stand out beautifully. When Al and Eddie go to the island in the sky, the pictures expand, filling two pages with rich color. And one picture, when Al believes he’s lost Eddie, is truly upsetting in its depiction of heartbreak.
I liked the last picture, where we see much happier versions of Al & Eddie, adding color to their drab apartment. But it wasn’t enough to save this book for me. I just wasn’t a fan of this one.
And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that, instead of hating where you are, put some effort into making it someplace you can love.