Tops & Bottoms

adapted and illustrated
by Janet Stevens

Janet Stevens's Tops & Bottoms

Children's book review by Steve Barancik

Ages 4-8

A book about human nature and the nature of business

Sure, they're colorful as heck, but the typical picture book depicts morality in black and white.

Well, here's a book that presents right and wrong in delightful shades of gray...just in time for growing up.

Meet Bear. Bear is a lazy bum. Son of a successful businessbear, he sleeps 24/7 on the dilapidated porch of his crumbling estate, wearing dress shoes he's been too lazy to take off and a dangling tie.

Meet Hare. He used to own land but he lost it on a bet with a tortoise. (You remember that, don't you?) Now he lives in a garbage-strewn hole with Mrs. Hare and their fast multiplying brood.

Living within site of Bear's vast and unused land, they hatch a plan. They go to Bear with the proposal.

"We can be business partners!" Hare said. "All we need is this field right here in front of your house. I'll do the hard work of planting and harvesting, and we can split the profit right down the middle. Yes, sir, Bear, we're in this together. I'll work and you sleep."

You've got the capital, I've got the labor. This is, indeed, baby's first book about business. And not without commentary!

Hare goes on to ask which half of the prospective crop Bear wants, tops or bottoms. Bear takes "tops," then goes back to sleep.

Hare plants root vegetables.

And after he and the family do the hard work of farming, they keep the vegetable part. Bear gets those tops: the carrot leaves.

The story goes on from there, with Bear tricked two more times, collecting broccoli roots and corn stalks in return for the use of his land.

bear on porch cartoon

In the end, he grudgingly starts farming for himself, while the Hare family opens a roadside vegetable stand.

Tops & Bottoms

Frankly, I love this book. There are more lessons to be had here than you can shake a stick at. As parables go, it does the work of seven or eight! I'll leave it to individual parents and teachers to decide which ones they want to emphasize.

We're told that the story has roots in European folktales as well as slave stories of the American South. It's a tale in the trickster tradition, featuring Hare as both hero and anti-hero.

Stevens won a Caldecott honor in 1996 for the book, but frankly I'm appalled that she didn't win the medal itself. The book reads from top to bottom - not left to right. And her illustrations even feature foreshadowing - how's that for a sophisticated picture book! - with an opening two page spread of assorted root vegetables seen above and below the soil.

Tops & Bottoms indeed.

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