Applesauce is a quirky and original picture book that explores the ups and downs of a young boy’s relationship with his father. The two share a close bond of affection, but sometimes the father becomes a “thunder daddy” and a rift develops between them. Fortunately, anger is a passing storm and love shines through in the end.
Told from the young boy’s perspective, the story starts on a light note. We learn that Daddy has smooth cheeks, and sounds like Mum when he sings in the bath. The illustrations are bright and colourful, the characters revelling in each in each other’s company. But the cheerful tone is dashed in the very next spread, where the father looks at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. He is a sorry sight: black-eyed, unshaven and unkempt, his belly hanging out of his pyjamas. And the son’s description of his father is far from flattering: “a cactus grows out of his chin, and his breath smells like cauliflower.” The colours have changed too from warm vibrant hues to blues and cream.
Verplancke plays with the colour palette throughout Applesauce to illustrate the state of the father-son relationship. Warm bright tones depict happy times, like when father and son play football together and – notably – the cosy domestic scene where the father makes apple sauce while his devoted son looks on. The text in these scenes reinforces the strength of the relationship, with beautiful lines such as “He [Daddy] blows away the hurt on my knee and catches my dreams when I’m sleeping.”
At low points of the story, blue tones dominate the illustrations, such as the bathroom scene mentioned above, or the turning point in the story when the father turns into “thunder daddy”. Words aren’t necessary in this scene, although they are here; the illustration says it all. In his anger, the father has become a terrifying ape-like figure towering over his son, his outstretched arm, huge frame and long blue shadow dominating the double-page spread. The son stands at the bottom right of the spread – as far away as possible from his father – a tiny figure with downcast eyes and head hanging low. What has provoked the outburst, we do not know.
Verplancke explores the impact of the father’s anger with a real depth of understanding. The son’s shamefacedness does not last; he moves through anger – “Stupid Daddy” – to rebellion and rejection. We see the aggrieved son through a set of wooden banisters as he climbs the stairs away from his father. Then we watch as the banisters morph into a dense, dark blue forest. The small boy is encircled by a fortress of trees, their myriad trunks stretching up beyond the top of the page. And things become scary – angry mouths open in the tree trunks and start yelling at the boy with his father’s voice. The son suddenly looks painfully alone.
Flip the page, though, and breathe a sigh of relief. Warm yellow highlights make the page glow and we share the son’s gradual reconciliation with his father over apple sauce. I love the way this transition starts with quiet and the smell of apple sauce; it is so gentle and so powerful. We can sense from this moment that the story is going to take a positive turn. The father gradually loses his ape-like appearance and becomes the Daddy of smooth cheeks from the start of the story. The son shifts from hurt anger to a contented smile after a bowl of apple sauce. And the tale ends on a cheerful note of reconciliation recalling the cosy apple sauce-making scene from the middle of the book.
I relished the honesty of Applesauce. Verplancke shows the beauty and closeness of the father-son relationship, but does not hesitate to depict the rough with the smooth in all its gnarly detail. Daddies get tired, daddies get angry, people get tired and angry, but in this instance anger passes and love prevails. I don’t think Applesauce will suit everyone’s taste, but I recommend you give it a try. Both adults and children will identify with and enjoy many aspects of this quirky picture book.
Applesauce by Klaas Verplancke (author/illustrator), translated by Helen Mixter (Groundwood Books, 2012)
Original title (Dutch): Appelmoes (Uitgeverij De Eenhoorn, 2010)
Klaas Verplancke initially worked in advertising before becoming a full-time illustrator in 1990. His work has appeared in newspapers and magazines and he has illustrated around 150 books. He has won the prestigious Bologna Ragazzi award, been a finalist for the Hans Christian Andersen Award, and been nominated twelve times for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award.
Helen Mixter is an author and translator of several children’s books. She lives in Ontario, Canada.