Neil Gaiman told a cautionary tale at his reading in Lexington, KY this summer. The moral was this: just because one’s young daughter enjoys R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series does not mean one’s same young daughter will also enjoy Stephen King’s Carrie. Sometimes, though, we literary sorts get carried away with our stories, with sharing and spinning imagination into words and tales, and just have to hope that the people around us are willing to jog a bit to catch up (or, at the very least, not turn tail and run).
In a culture where fathers are often presented as bumbling idiots a la Berenstein Bears (a “fatherist” problem Gaiman has even faulted himself for), Gaiman’s new children’s book, Fortunately, the Milk has turned the trope on its head while remaining charmingly self-aware. Fortunately’s protagonist is a dad on a mission—a very zany mission—but it’s in the telling of the tale that he proves himself to his kids. The publisher describes the book as “an ode to the pleasure and wonders of storytelling itself,” and Gaiman called it the “silliest book [he] has ever written.” It’s a bit of both, and therein lays its magic.
In true Cat in the Hat fashion, Fortunately, the Milk opens with the absence of an authority figure; in this case, the mother—off to “[present] a paper on lizards,” like moms are apt to do. Dad and kids pull through just fine, though, until they discover they’re out of milk. This means no cereal, and, more importantly, milk-less tea. The father leaves, supposedly on a quest for the breakfaster’s Holy Grail, but he ends up with far more than he bargained for.
First, there are the aliens, and more formidable still, the pirate queen. Fortunately, when the father is rescued from walking the plank by a stegosaurus in a hot air balloon (“Professor Steg’s Floaty-Ball-Person-Carrier”), he has the bottle of milk nestled securely in his pocket. Gaiman, as promised, has not pulled any stops on the silliness, and listing the events of the father’s adventure does neither the silliness nor the survival of the milk any credit. Suffice to say there are more dinosaurs, time travel, and some very hungry wumpires (and, fortunately, well, the milk).
If Hook were written by Jon Scieszka, we’d be somewhere in the ballpark of Fortunately, the Milk. Whimsical and adventurous, the book’s moral heart is in putting family first, no matter what fantastical distractions litter the path. The best part, though, is—and here’s the key to a good kid’s book—that it is as far from didactic as it can get. Storytelling—oral stories, bedtime stories, even all the boring stories your parents used to tell you in between—isn’t just a tool for parenting; it’s fun, it’s ridiculous, and it’s a little bit dangerous.
Gaiman meets his goal—writing “a book in which a father did all of the sorts of exciting things that fathers actually do, in the real world”—with a crash, a bang, and a small split in the space-time continuum. It is a ridiculous book that I am positive I’d have enjoyed as a kid, and one that I plan on sticking beneath my father’s nose the next time I see him, to say, “this sounds like someone I know.” It would be a compliment, too.
But what would a children’s book be without illustrations? Skottie Young does in pictures what Gaiman does in words. With eccentric and unrestrained lines, he breaks into the narrative with the ease of a galactic police dinosaur. Like the book’s father, Young builds on a solid foundation of story to reach soaring heights of whimsical silliness. It is some of the most boisterous artwork I’ve ever seen, and matches Gaiman word for word.
If you’re not convinced, check out the trailer and Gaiman’s letter about the book here.
Fortunately, the Milk will be released on September 17th by HarperCollins.
Emily Nordling is a writer and activist living in Chicago, IL. She thrives primarily on tea, books, and justice.