by Mac Barnett

One of my favorite games to play as a child was the “pass it on” game of Telephone.  You whisper a simple statement to the person sitting next to you, they whisper what they heard to the person sitting next to them, and so on.  The thing you whispered inevitably evolves into something more colorful, often on purpose.  By the time the person at the end of the line blurts out what they heard, which should be what you said, it’s some crazy, messed up version… and instant childhood hilarity.  I remember sitting with anticipation and giggling, just waiting to hear the difference between what I passed on and the end result.  So it was with great nostalgia that I picked up Mac Barnett’s Telephone.

The story is simple.  A bird asks another bird to pass along a message to her son.  As the birds pass the message on to other birds, it gets predictably mangled.  The amazing watercolor illustrations by Jen Corace are truly essential to the story.  There is a real cleverness here that is easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention.  The birds are all sitting on a telephone wire as they unintentionally play a game of Telephone.  Each bird’s very obvious personality and apparel tweak what they hear.  For instance, the initial mistake starts with Peter’s mama bird saying, “Tell Peter: Fly home for dinner,” to a little red cardinal holding a baseball bat, who hears and passes along, “Tell Peter: Hit pop flies and homers.”  There is a suspicious toucan, a nervous turkey, a tidy ostrich, and more.  When the message gets to a big, random, crazy yellow bird wearing a John McEnroe-style sweatband, it goes truly haywire and will have kids laughing.   Each page features one interaction, so each turn of the page brings anticipation and humor, and it mimics the real life Telephone experience.

There is a bit of a surprise ending, and the story goes full circle thanks to a wise, wise owl.  Maybe, just maybe, Peter will indeed get the message that he needs to fly home for dinner.

Telephone is a real charmer, and it offers grownups the chance to introduce an old-fashioned and simple game to kids.  My favorite thing about reading to my children is that it gives me an opportunity to relate to them and share my experiences and my loves, and this book is a prime example of just that.   Yes, it will take some explanation for kids who are unfamiliar with the game of Telephone, but it’s a sweet and silly way to make a fun connection with your kids and teach them something new.