One of my most anticipated reads of the month was Neil Gaiman’s newest children’s book, Chu’s Day (Harper, 2013). Gaiman has long been popular with artists, comic lovers, goth kids, nerds, gamers and weirdos of all stripes. Successes like the film Coraline have helped make him a more mainstream household name. Gaiman’s blend of fantasy, folklore, whimsy and darkness is signature. In my opinion, he can almost do no wrong. But with a cannon of fiction, kid’s books, graphic novels and young adult material as huge as Gaiman’s, there is bound to be a less-than-spectacular title in the list somewhere. I am sad to report that Chu’s Day fills this disappointing slot.
The story follows Chu, a baby giant panda. We are warned on the book’s jacket that when Chu sneezes, bad things happen. As his parents take him to the library, a diner and then the circus, various things in these locales tickle our protagonist’s nose. His parents have some anxiety over whether he will sneeze, but he assures them he will not. As Chu “ah, ah ahs” the tension builds, only for nothing to happen on the next page. Disaster avoided. This build-up continues until the third time’s a charm, and—at the circus—Chu finally “Ah-Choos.” The problem is, the climax is underwhelming. Chu only sneezes once, and what happens isn’t treated like that big of a deal. The end of the book is sudden and unsatisfying, and leaves the reader thinking, “That’s it?” This reader anyway.
The book is recommended for ages four to eight. If you read Chu’s Day out loud with much expressivity, four year-olds might be entertained. The best part of Chu’s Day is actually the superb illustrations, by Adam Rex, which are boldly colored and whimsically detailed. Various animals, partially clothed in human garb, go about their days, working pedestrian jobs and doing other people things. Their facial expressions reveal humorous personalities. Unfortunately, the story seems like a tossed on afterthought. The text is minimal and simple; it’s probably a short paragraph all told. Lots of Gaiman’s work is light on text but heavy on atmosphere, character or other intriguing information. Chu’s Day lacks the dark yet humorous edge of Gaiman’s other kids books, such as The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish (which is also recommended for ages four to eight).
Gaiman himself has made a little video, wherein he talks about his inspiration for the book. He speaks slowly and carefully, accompanied by a soundtrack of chipper boings and bells. It’s clearly geared toward very young children. Perhaps if the book were marketed for just kids, say, three to five, my expectations would have been different. But I still went in looking for the Gaiman feel—something magical, something weird, something different—and it just isn’t there. The book is cute, but any children’s author could have written Chu’s Day. If you can get it at the library, do so, just to make your own informed decision. But don’t expect your kids to love it, especially if they’re already Gaiman fans.