Special Delivery: A Mischievous Illustrated Reminder that Nothing Is Insurmountable in the Conveyance of a Loving Gesture
By Maria Popova
Virginia Woolf called letter writing “the humane art” and Lewis Carroll saw in it an invitation to be more civil to one another. There is, indeed, something deeply humanizing and civilizing not only about the act of setting contemplative thought down to paper for another mind to contemplate in turn, but also about the chain of human touch relaying that message, heart to hand to heart, from sender to receiver via postal worker. And yet we live in an age where such correspondence has fallen out of favor as we co-react with the click of a Send button — so much so, that the very prospect of sending a real letter seems like a gargantuan task that few care to undertake.
In Special Delivery (public library), Caldecott-winning author Philip C. Stead and illustrator Matthew Cordell wink at our relationship with correspondence by making that seemingly gargantuan task literally so. They tell the story of little Sadie — a brave, single-minded, will-do-whatever-it-takes heroine partway between Eloise and Amelia Earhart — who decides to mail her beloved Great-Aunt Josephine an elephant, because Josephine “lives almost completely alone” and “could really use the company.”
When Sadie discovers that stuffing the elephant in a mailbox wouldn’t work, she heads to the post office to mail him as an oversized package.
“Please be gentle with him. So do not bend him, or drop him, or shake him much at all. He is fragile and very easily might break,” she instructs the postmaster, who proceeds to inform her that she’d need to buy an impossible number of stamps to mail such a large package.
Determined to get the elephant to her Great-Aunt, Sadie decides to borrow her neighbor Mary’s plane. (In a culture where only 31% of children’s books feature female protagonists, one can’t help but be heartened by Stead’s cast of courageous women.)
But the plan crashes as the plane does, and Sadie and her elephant land in the middle of the jungle.
Unperturbed, Sadie asks the Alligator for a ride down the river, promising to someday mail him a real letter with “a giant stick of bubble gum” inside, as a token of gratitude.
With her large friend in tow, Sadie hops on a train and imagines braving bandits.
A train will get us there quickly, and anyway it’s nice to see new things.
Finally, she gets a lift from the ice cream truck and makes it to Josephine, who awaits her surrounded by other mysterious packages and fanciful wild animals.
As the two embrace, Josephine offers her great-niece a cup of restorative hot chocolate, but Sadie insists on getting one urgent matter out of the way first. Squatting on the ground, with a box of gum by her side, she pens a “real letter” — a young woman of her word.
Special Delivery is an absolute delight, emanating Charlotte Zolotow’s quietly mischievous storytelling and Jules Feiffer’s expressive sensibility, and yet entirely original. Complement it with a very different but at least as touching tale of bravery and friendship starring alligators.
Illustrations courtesy of Macmillan; photographs my own
Published March 3, 2015