Pete & Pickles
Written and illustrated by Berkeley Breathed
48 pp.; ISBN-13: 9780399250828
Review by Amy Brozio-Andrews
Berkeley Breathed is back with a new children’s story, Pete & Pickles, turning his attention from mothers and sons (Mars Needs Moms) to an unlikely friendship between a straight-laced pig and a bubbly elephant with a strong enthusiasm for life.
When the book opens, Pete is a widower who’s really dedicated to his quiet life and quite particular about his routine. He even vacuums his wife’s grave and goes to bed early just to get his recurring nightmare of drowning out of the way. Only this night, a storm blows in an unexpected house guest, a wayward elephant named Pickles from the nearby circus. Pickles turns Pete’s life upside down; the pair go over Niagara Falls, hit the Matterhorn, and relax on Venetian canals, such as they are in Pickles’ imagination. Pete discovers the joy of back rubs and the pair sing romantic Italian songs. Before he knows it, Pete’s having fun and living to live again. Unfortunately, Pickles takes the fun too far one day and Pete decides they’re through. But then there’s an accident and suddenly Pete and Pickles are facing poor Pete’s biggest fear.
Berkeley Breathed pulls no punches with this story; he brings Pete and Pickles to the highest highs of friendship to the lowest lows. Where Pickles has clearly saved Pete from his loneliness, Pete gets the unexpected opportunity to save his friend too, he just needs to be brave enough to take it. The story of this budding and enduring friendship is emotionally captivating and when paired with Breathed’s creative and surreal signature artwork (complete with nods to artists Hokusai and Homer), it’s visually engaging too.
While the Amazon listing indicates this book is appropriate for ages 4-8, the subject matter might be a bit intense for the younger end of the spectrum, depending on how keenly kids understand the story and the artwork. For example, Pete is shown at his wife’s grave early on in the book; it’s never explicitly stated that he’s a widower but it’s there if kids notice it or parents want to bring it up. In another illustration, Pickles sinks further into deep water that fills the house — the implications are clear and may have kids sweating it but of course Breathed comes through for his readers (and Pickles!) in the end. The high drama storytelling style is engaging and may be familiar to readers who already know Mars Needs Moms but Breathed is never capricious with his readers’ feelings; in an interview with NPR, he says, "Most children’s stories … are afraid to bring a moment of danger and threat and potential death to a story, which I think is absolutely critical in carrying a child in through the arc that is required for him or her — as long as you show them the other end of that tunnel and the decisions made to get out of it." In other words, relax, he knows what he’s doing. That being said, Pete and Pickles is a warm and uplifting story that’s good for family reading.