Nearly every person, no matter what age, has experienced the sting of knowing a friend said something behind her back. And all of us know what it’s like to misunderstand something and let a situation get out of hand. This is the drama at the heart of Liz Rosenberg’s What James Said, where one elementary-age girl tells readers how she refuses to talk to her friend James. “We are in a fight,” she declares. Word has gotten around, you see, that James said that he thinks our narrator thinks she is perfect.
This is hurtful to the girl, and she lays out the reasons she is, in fact, not perfect. Her hair is plain brown, and she’s not very good at spelling—to name but two things. She’s good at art, however, and one of her pieces has been chosen as “Best of Show” in art class at school. And while she does her best to ignore James all throughout the story, readers will notice his confusion and his stubborn attempts to convince her to talk to him. “Are you feeling okay?” he eventually asks her. When the misunderstanding is revealed—he thinks her art piece is “perfect,” and the girls’ friends clearly misunderstood James and started an impressive game of Gossip—readers breathe a sigh of relief.
Rosenberg’s elegant text channels the way children this age think and feel, and Matt Myers’ uncluttered artwork, in clever ways, lets the girl and James have all the focus. When other children are part of a spread, Myers often outlines only their bodies in muted and thickly lined watercolors. And for several highly emotional scenes, he covers the moment with watercolor splashes: When the girl hears the unfounded gossip, her hands cover her eyes and she’s covered in pink splashes of watercolor paints. Myers’ use of these paint splashes to communicate the strong emotions of the story really works.
It’s an honest exploration of best-friend dynamics. Spread the word: This one is not to be missed.
Julie Danielson features authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children’s literature blog.