Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Every once in a while I'll plug a favorite children's book that makes for a good discussion of an interesting idea. I suppose it is appropriate that today's book post follows a post on what everyone is doing, for it is about not doing what everyone is doing.

Folks, let me introduce you to The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Manus Pinkwater. This book follows the remodeling exploits of one Mr. Plumbean, who is the victim of a seagull who drops an open can of orange paint on his house, leaving the eponymous splot on his roof. His neighbors consider Mr. Plumbean rather unlucky. Perhaps, unlike your blogger, they have not personally known the pleasure of seagulls dropping other things from the sky, and having such things land on their heads, but I suppose that is beside the point.

Mr. Plumbean lives in a neighborhood that looks like its homeowner's association got its training under Mao. All the houses look the same. I once lived in a homeowner's association. Mine was comparatively liberal. For instance, it would allow us to paint our homes any color we wanted, so long as that color was some shade of beige. Anyway, Mr. Plumbean's neighbors become increasingly frustrated with his failure to de-splotify his house. The splot doesn't match his house, and it makes their "neat street" not-so-neat, they complain. Mr. Plumbean says he'll do something about it, and boy does he. By the time he is done, his house looks like the aesthetic love child of Peter Max and Jimmy Buffet.

During and after Plumbean's remodeling, one by one his neighbors have a sit-down with him to convince him to see things from the neighborhood's point of view, and implore him to conform to the neat look of the street. Somehow Plumbean turns the tables on them, and the next thing you know, those same neighbors are creating the houses that look like the houses of their dreams. My dream house isn't among them (alternative sketch here) but that is okay. I guess I have weird dreams.

Mr. Plumbean's tale is that of an individualist liberating himself from the shackles of conformity, and showing others that they can do so, too. Anyone who has ever been on the wrong side of a zoning board will love it. Yet I suspect that there are a few folks out there who might bristle at Plumbean's reckless disregard for his neighbors wishes, or at least their property values. (This was someone's dream, after all.) Should Plumbean be allowed to build his house any old way? What about the pet alligator on the front lawn? Plumbean is clearly the hero here. But that doesn't mean we can't use the book to have a conversation with our kids about whether being oneself just means doing what one wants to do (it doesn't), and whether certain contexts are just not right for self-expression--even if we cheer when Plumbean has succeeded in turning his freakishly neat street into a neatly freakish one.

1 comment:

Brian Hamilton said...

Sounds like a child's version of Kurt Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron. Thank you for posting this, I'm always on the lookout for books for my son that present more questions than answers.

As a side note, I moved into a neighborhood years ago because they didn’t have a neighborhood association, only to end up living next to someone who painted their house sky blue, adopted 10 cats, and started to lay out in our shared side yard sans clothes. And while I’m all for expressed individuality, hairy, naked, old, sweaty guy made me realize that I have my limits.