Bad Day at Riverbend
Written and Illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg
Houghton Mifflin, 1995

Bad Day at Riverbend is a genre-breaking children's picture book, perhaps best described as surreal nihilism. Okay, maybe that's an exaggeration -- but it's heavy stuff for a five-year-old.

Riverbend is a quiet frontier town, replete with cowboys, stagecoaches, and a steadfast and respectable sheriff. Nothing ever happened there, until, one day, something did. A stagecoach comes into town with no coachman, and all the horses are covered in some kind of shiny, greasy slime. Riding out to find the coachman Sheriff Hardy finds that the oily strands are everywhere -- on the trail, on the cacti, and indeed on the coachman, who has been rendered blind and mute by the substance.

The reader, at this point, knows exactly what is going on. The town and all its residents are stereotypical coloring book filler, black and white line drawings of limited detail and plenty of white space. The 'slime' is actually scribbled crayon lines (although they are all in bright colors, the townsfolk appear to be colorblind).

Spoiler alert! The townsfolk continue to be terrorized by the strange slime until the Sheriff rides out with a posse to find out what is causing the 'attacks'. And then suddenly they are all colored. The end. And that is the end -- apparently, of all of them. The story zooms out, showing a small boy with a table covered in coloring pages, happily scribbling on the frozen posse. End spoilers.

Aside from being an odd and rather dark story, the art also breaks expectations. Chris Van Allsburg is well-known for detailed illustrations that are both highly realistic and clever -- you may be familiar with The Polar Express and Jumanji. This book contains exactly 2.5 illustrations of the sort we have come to expect from him, the rest being fairly standard coloring book illustrations with frequent scribbles.

I'm not entirely sure who to recommend this book to. It is not a bad read aloud book, especially if your child has a slightly odd and morbid sense of humor. If you think they may react badly to the idea that coloring is equivalent to tormenting innocents, give it a pass. It is probably not a bedtime story (unless you feel that Kafkaesque dreams are an important part of growing up), but it is a fun -- or at least, interesting -- book, and it is likely to be more enjoyable for the adult than another reading of Goodnight Moon.

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