Written by Adam Rex, Illustrated by Scott Campbell
Roaring Brook Press, 2017
For some time now I have wanted to write a letter to say how much I admire you.
The plot in a nutshell: An ox and a gazelle correspond.
In his letter Gazelle, Ox compliments her and tells her he loves her. Gazelle sends back a form letter, saying that she has many admirers and can’t respond to them all. Ox write back to thank her for the reply. When he receives the same form letter in return, he compliments her on having a mind smart enough to use the exact same words. Gazelle writes back this time, saying she has many faults, but being repetitive isn’t one of them. Ox tells her in his next letter that he thinks she probably only has a couple faults and Gazelle takes that very hard. In her reply, she points out that some animals have the faults of being too large, stout and smelly. Ox understands that she is talking about him, but takes it as encouragement to be better. Gazelle tells him she could never love an ox and he tells her he admires her for admitting to this fault. She rips up the picture he sent her, but then reconsiders and sits down to write him a reply, with his picture taped to her wall.
Boy oh boy, this is a tough one. I’m a fan of author Adam Rex and have loved many of his other books, especially those in which he collaborated with Mac Barnett. There are lots of things I like about this one, but I was uncomfortable with the presentation of someone never taking ‘no’ for an answer to be seen as romantic in a dating scenario. I don’t believe it’s really presented that way, honestly, and I feel like I can see what Mr. Rex was going for. Ox in this story is presented as a little on the slow side and I think he genuinely doesn’t get that she’s rejecting him, since he keeps spinning her response to his liking. But even that is a moral slippery slope in this world when consent is such an important thing to teach.
Scott Campbell’s illustrations, in watercolor and colored pencil, are undeniably charming and show these characters and their distinct personalities remarkably well. Gazelle is clearly some type of celebrity and she is smitten with herself. Ox is simple and openhearted and is very honest in his letters to Gazelle, which seems to be what finally tips things in his favor. Realizing that he respects her enough to be real with her in a world where many people are false makes her see him in a new light, or so we gather from the endpapers, which show them happily enjoying things together. It’s a story that manages to be both heartwarming and funny and I enjoyed it quite a bit. But there is something that feels a little squicky in his continual pursuit of her, especially when she treats him so badly, so I’d recommend discussing this one with your kids to get their take on the characters.
And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that it’s hard to stand against those who know all our faults and love us anyway.