NITTY GRITTY DETAILS
- Title: The Farmer and the Clown
- Author: Marla Frazee
- Illustrator: Marla Frazee
- Awards: Starred Reviews in School Library Journal, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Horn Book, Children’s Bookshelf, and Bulletin, 2015 Boston Globe – Horn Book Picture Book Award, Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Book of the Year 2014, Kirkus Best Children’s Book of of the Year 2014, NPR Favorite Book of 2014, National Cartoonist Society 2015 “Silver Reuben” Award Nominee for Book Illustration, NCTE Charlotte Huck Award for Outstanding Fiction for Children Honor Book, ALA Notable Book, and many more!
Marla Frazee is a free-spirited artist, passionate about her craft. Honest and witty, she jokes about the seriousness of her topics (babies, clowns, roller coasters, etc.) while at the same time advising people to only write about things they care about. An illustrator first, Marla began her career in 1990 on the book World-Famous Muriel and the Magic Mystery, written by Sue Alexander. It wasn’t until 2003 that she wrote her first book, Roller Coaster, which she also illustrated. A fun, playful, and creative author, Marla is a joyful storyteller with both her words and her art!
A moving story, The Farmer and the Clown is the tale of how companionship can bring color and joy to life.
The story begins with a somber picture done in muted browns, greys, white, and black, highlighting the isolation of the sole character on the page: the farmer. No home is the background, no color, no family or friends, just crows ominously flying overhead.
Color bursts out of the next page as a sign that the farmer’s stasis has been knocked out of balance. However, his life isn’t the only thing knocked around; from the vibrantly colored circus train, the farmer notices a small person go flying. He immediately runs over and discovers a happy little clown. The child is the one one spot on the page.
The two characters go to the farmer’s house where it appears that the small clown is having a wonderful time: running around the farmer, eating food with him, and just sitting in chairs looking at one another. However, the mood shifts during bath time as the small clown’s makeup is removed to reveal not a happy, smiling child, but a sad and lonely looking one.
This propels the farmer into action as he begins to actively engage with the child. Together they make silly faces, eat breakfast, work on the farm, and the reader is content, if not amused, with their growing friendship. But yet again, the mood shifts as they see the clown train returning and they race to it, reuniting the young clown with his family but leaving the old farmer by himself. Or so it seems until the reader gets to the last page only to discover that yet another passenger on the clown train has gotten off.
There are two primary foci for this book:
- Picture book without words
The Farmer and the Clown does not, in fact, use any words. Instead, the author uses her masterful art to tell the story in its entirety.
TEACHING & LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES
- Inferring: Students are often asked to infer meaning from a text, but they often struggle to understand what exactly that means. Because the story is told without words, this book provides an excellent opportunity provide to discuss the concrete skills needed to infer. Questions you might ask are:
- How did you know that the farmer was lonely? (using background knowledge of color symbolism, knowing the importance of setting, etc.)
- What in the picture told you the clown was sad? (recognizing social cues such as a sad face, body language, etc.)
- How would you feel if you were the farmer after you reunited the clown with his family? (authors depend on readers feeling certain ways or having specific reactions)
- Sequencing: Students could create the words to the story using sequencing words to help the reader transition from scene to scene.
At its core, this novel is about companionship, not only that it’s important for a vibrant life but also that it comes and goes. These are hard lessons at any age, but they would certainly resonate with my middle school students who struggle with self-harm, recognizing that life extends beyond the day, and embracing the loss of a friendship.
WORDS OF CAUTION
You may become addicted to picture books without words!
Marla Frazee assumes that the reader knows what a circus train is and what farming looks like. Without a working knowledge of a pitchfork, the reader may assume that the old man is simply out playing in the dirt and completely miss the fact that he is a hardworking farmer. I often see urban students struggle to access stories that are based in suburban or rural settings as the vocabulary is completely different than what they are used to. Thankfully, with the use of pictures the assumptions made by the author do not interfere with comprehension.
WHO IS IN AND WHO IS OUT?
Unfortunately, The Farmer and the Clown severely lacks diversity. The protagonist and side character are both male and both white, and the only scene with other people indicates they are all white as well based on arm and leg color (clown makeup makes it tricky to see their true faces!). With a group scene at the end, I was surprised to see that the characters all appeared to be white as this was a simple opportunity to add diversity into the book.
THE ROLE OF WOMEN
Similar to the novel’s lack of diversity, it also lacked a strong female character. This is, sadly, all too common in literature. The two women are clowns who wear dresses with frills, makeup (yes, they are clowns but the little boy clown was allowed the opportunity to take his off!), and one is kneeling to embrace the young boy clown, inferring that she is the mother of the child. The only girl character also has a dress with frills, but her hair is up in a ponytail with a bow.