Emily Gravett’s latest picture book opens memorably—with a die-cut cover and opening pages that reveal a lush, gorgeous forest. Eventually, we see Pete the badger through those die-cut holes. He’s tidying, as he likes to keep everything neat. That’s right: He tidies the very forest itself—its flowers, its foxes and birds, and even its sticks and rocks.
But on one beautiful autumn day, a leaf falls. Pete wonders at the lone leaf, then looks up in shock to see even more descending. He decides to continue tidying—but does so extensively that the trees are left bare. When this doesn’t look right to him, he digs up the trees, which causes a flood and subsequently creates a ton of mud. Pete calls in the diggers, mixers, rakers, fixers (and lots of concrete) to tidy up in the most definitive way possible. This leaves nothing, but Pete is clueless, saying that the forest is “practically perfect.” Later, when he’s unable to find food and his home (“there wasn’t a door where the door used to be!”), he realizes he’s made a mistake. He puts everything right with the help of his forest friends.
There’s a definite environmental message here in Gravett’s rhyming couplets, one about urbanization and the loss of creatures’ habitats when nature meets urban sprawl. Throw in the notion that sometimes a little bit of a mess is a little bit OK, as well as the idea that sometimes in life it’s wise to abandon control. But it’s all wrapped up in an entertaining story and Gravett’s luscious illustrations, which are rendered so brightly (via pencil, watercolor and wax crayons) that some spreads pop right off the page.
Delightfully, Gravett leaves the story a bit open-ended, asking readers to consider whether or not Pete has done well: “And Pete? Well, he promised to tidy up less. But if he succeeded is anyone’s guess!” It’s a not-so-tidy ending for a story that will get children thinking about the planet they live on.
Julie Danielson features authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children’s literature blog.