Teaching Friendship With A Sick Day for Amos McGee
When it comes to picture books, the secret to my heart seems to be beautiful illustrations of animals. I suppose I’m a sucker for endearing animal characters. It’s probably because I’ve always loved animals, and they have always been a big part of my life. And, I have to say, the animals in A Sick Day for Amos McGee are just about the most perfect illustrations I’ve ever seen. But the really great thing about these animals is that they are very inconspicuously some of the kindest souls in kids literature.
Every single character in this book is the kind of role model I want for my kids. Compassion and empathy are very important to me, and that should go for all animals - not just human animals. Like I’ve said many times before, the only question I have at parent/teacher conferences is if my son is nice to everyone. And nothing makes me a prouder dad than the fact that if our kids find a spider in the house, they capture it in a cup and let it go in the backyard.
As far as I’m concerned, books that tackle topics like empathy and friendship are tackling meaning of life stuff. They’re trying to give kids the tools to build meaningful relationships and spend their days on Earth in a worth while fashion. That’s a bold mission there, Amos McGee. Can you live up to those lofty expectations? Of course you can.
I say all of this because I think I’m predisposed to find A Sick Day for Amos McGee one of the best picture books ever made. In fact, we listed it in 4th place for the best picture books of all time, and 3rd place for the best picture books that teach empathy. But, most importantly, it never fails to bring us all a lot of happiness. It’s simply an instant classic. I’m sure they would have put all of those coveted honors on the cover of the book too, but it also won the Caldecott Medal in 2011 - so they decided to display that one instead.
A Sick Day for Amos McGee is the tale of a zookeeper and the animal friends that he takes care of. They have the same routine every day, but, when Amos is sick - the animals come visit him in his home. They leave the zoo, they wait at the bus stop, and the ride the bus to Amos’ house. No biggie.
Amos McGee won the Caldecott for Erin Stead’s stunningly beautiful illustrations. I love her soft style very much, and we always buy the books she works on. And if you’re familiar with this book, and you know anything about me at all, I’m sure you can guess my favorite page. That’s right, it’s the chess-playing elephant. I would very happily blow this particular illustration up into a painting and hang it on my wall. In fact, every page of this book would look good on the wall.
What I love about the chess-playing elephant - and Amos’ interactions with all of his animal friends - is how normal it all is. None of the animals has a loud, wacky, cartoony personality - they’re all very chill. There’s definitely a dry humor in the way that they’re totally matter-of-fact about everything. Just take a look at the picture of the animals waiting for the bus and you’ll definitely see what I mean. It’s all very zen and soothing.
But hidden in that dry humor is the heartwarming notion that these animals and Amos truly love each other. That’s when you can pull your kids over and talk about what love looks like. Why does Amos spend time with the animals every day? And why did they come all the way to his house when he was sick? Look at Amos’ face when he says “Hooray! My good friends are here!”. Why does this visit mean so much to him?
We first begin to see the love in how dedicated Amos is to his friends. The details of the story are always so subtle in the Steads’ books (that’s a big part of my love for them), but my personal interpretation of this one is that Amos is a widower who has completely thrown himself into his work at the zoo, and the animals are his only friends. We get the impression his days are all the exact same, and it’s easy to imagine how sad it might be for him to wake up sick and not be able to go in to work and see his friends.
And that tiny glimpse of sadness makes his bond with the animals that much more inspiring. It’s silly to see them waiting for the bus, but they’re defying expectations to be with their friend and make him happy. It’s clear to see that that relationship they have is their meaning in life. The routine that Amos and his friends have is basically their reason for living.
This is the kind of beautiful art that I’m proud to share with our kids. Providing them with examples of what true love looks like helps them build their own understanding of life - and what’s really important. Finding the right people to fill your life with is one of the most important things you can ever do. Friends and family can define a life. I consider it incredibly valuable for children to see what those friendships can look like.
All dads want their kids to find something in their life to dedicate themselves to - something that makes them happy. If only we could all be lucky enough to find the type of meaning on display in A Sick Day for Amos McGee. Consider it your “what’s life all about?” manual for the kids.