Matt James demonstrated his skill for writing about hard subjects in a reassuring way in The Funeral (2018), his first picture book as both author and illustrator. He does so again in Tadpoles, which follows a boy who ponders his own changing habitat as he explores a pond formed by rainfall with his father.
There’s no dearth of children’s books about the topics James explores here—divorce, changing seasons, the life cycles of frogs—but he nimbly imparts a fresh take on all three in an enticingly rich and thoughtful creation. Tadpoles is not quite a science book and not quite a divorce book, in the best possible ways.
James accomplishes this through the strong voice of his narrator. He establishes the boy’s conversation tone from the very first line: “A kid in my class says she saw a two-headed frog.” The boy reveals that his father disagrees: “My dad says . . . that Sita probably just saw two frogs.” The boy is experiencing all manner of changes, including the arrival of spring rains that create a huge puddle in a field near his school. The boy notes that the field contains “neat old junk that people just left lying around,” such as glass bottles, a rusty bicycle and an upright piano. There’s even an old farm silo, which prompts the boy to confess, “Once, when my dad first moved to his new place, I stood in the silo and yelled every single swear word that I know. I guess I was worried that he wouldn’t love me anymore, but my dad says that some things never change.”
James’ moody art is filled with dark clouds and a wide variety of raindrops, which readers will almost feel splattering against the pages. Flashes of pink, green and the bright yellow of the boy’s raincoat guide the eye as the boy and his father study the pond’s tadpoles and discuss their evolution in detail (endnotes offer additional information). Movement on every page—swimming tadpoles, swirling clouds, curlicues on the back of a metal chair and more—adds interest. The backdrop of ongoing transformation in both the natural and manmade worlds dovetails neatly with the boy’s reflections about his father and their relationship. James’ illustrations show that the neighborhood is changing too, with high-rise buildings and a construction crane near smaller homes and green spaces. As the book ends, the skies are clear and blue as the boy and his father head home. One of the book’s many strengths is James’ comfort with leaving things unsaid and allowing readers to draw their own conclusions.
Tadpoles is a reassuring reminder that change can bring positive new developments, and that parental love remains constant, even amid great upheaval.