Power flows from perceived external authority, and freedom flows from claiming personal authority. Sometimes, anyway. Life is complex!
In this story the arbitrary exercise of power is set in clear and absurd relief against obvious freedoms.
General Alcazar issues a direct order—nobody is allowed to cross the line to the right hand page!
It’s ridiculous, no reason is given, the right hand page is gloriously blank.
Nuno comes along first and wants to know why. The hapless Guard has no explanation: “I’m sorry, I’m only obeying orders.”
The crowd grows and they're all confined to the left hand page, simply because the guard says so. Until some children accidentally throw a ball onto the right hand page!
There’s a pregnant pause, a tentative asking for permission, and agreement from the guard: “Just this once.”
And the inevitable flood of characters moving to the right hand page.
The entire story is told in speech bubbles with no prose whatsoever. It’s humanising and leaves the gaps to the reader. There are lots of questions to be asked and answered:
Why did the general issue the order?
Whose needs are greater?
What does the guard think about his orders?
There are triggers throughout the book. “I’m only obeying orders” for example, immediately reminds mature readers of Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao Tse Tung, and the many order-following soldiers of those regimes. The surging crowds crossing the line call to mind the fall of the Berlin Wall.
These are easy to spot references when you have the history, but for young children the story will be fresh and new. And that’s where the beauty lies. In watching the various characters make their own decisions about how to respond to the guard, children are able to contemplate what they might do.
Depending on your approach to picture books, you may even like to let your child draw him/herself into the story. Would they stand quietly while others question the guard? Sneak across the page when the guard isn't looking? Confront the General? Go home? All of these approaches have merit in different circumstances. Taking a moment to think about them and their pros and cons is high level thinking and tremendously good for developing empathy as well as opinions.
On the front and back covers there’s a cast of characters—the only place their names appear. Kids can draw themselves into the cast (if you can cope with that); it’s fun to find the characters and discover their names. (The author and illustrator drew themselves into the characters—so why not us too?) You can click on the image to enlarge for a better view.
There are strong reasons to love this book:
If there’s one thing that unites modern parents, it’s the desire for children to think for themselves, to be brave enough to stand up to wrongfully exercised power. This is a great story for talking about when and how to do that.
Even if you’re not into defying authority, or if you really just want your toddler to follow your own random orders, the expressiveness of the characters and the joyful colours make for a wonderful reading experience.
By making the order inextricably connected to the characters who are part of a book, there’s a bit of necessary distance from the reader. That’s a useful distance if you’re inclined to anxiety—it’s just a little removed from real life. There’s no way we will ever be ordered to stay on one side of a book, so there’s no need to fear. There are plenty of easy analogies to draw of course, but you don’t have to go there unless it’s helpful.
A couple of reading hints:
If you’re not one for wild and various accents when reading aloud, a book told entirely in dialogue can be tricky—the most effective way around the accents is to simply point to each character as you read their lines. Actually, it’s really helpful to point to the characters even if you are into wild and various accents.
And on pages with lots of short, sharp dialogue, it's good to read quickly to imbue a sense of urgency.
Don’t Cross the Line is one of my favourite books about authority and personal accountability. It’s perfect for reading to any age and can help start the process of claiming personal authority rather than bowing to perceived external authority – and that’s a big win in a cheerful and fun picture book.