Hug Machine by Scott Campbell – Reviewed by Rebecca Jones
As a children’s librarian and mama of three, I’m pretty much obsessed with kid lit. I scavenge online and in print to learn about the latest and greatest in children’s books, always searching for that next fantastic read. And while I’m full of my own opinions about what makes a quality children’s book, I’m also wise enough to defer to my kids before I make a final judgment.
About a month or so ago I started tuning into some buzz about a just-published picture book from an author/illustrator new to me. Scott Campbell has a bio tailor-made for a great book — he’s studied comics and children’s book illustration at San Francisco’s Academy of Art, worked designing kids’ video games, published some graphic novels, and displayed paintings in art galleries. Campbell’s graphics represent a happy medium between whimsical, geeky, and just plain cute.
A copy of Campbell’s first children’s book (for which he served as both author and illustrator) appeared in my section of the library reserve shelf in early September. I thumbed through it, and brought it home for my kids. I have to admit, that while I thought Hug Machine was sweet, I wasn’t bowled over. It seemed like a simple, warm story that young children might enjoy. Fortunately, I remembered to defer to the experts (my kids, of course), before forming a decisive opinion.
My kindergarten son and I read a lot of books together at bedtime, and like your average young boy, he thinks he has way too much to do to waste his time on books he’s not particularly interested in. We usually read new library books once or twice, and move on to other new titles, or back to the old ones that are his favorites. But over the course of a few weeks, my five-year-old son became quite attached to Hug Machine. He asked me to read it over and over. He made me stop at particularly interesting page spreads so he could point out his favorite details or remind me what would happen next. As we read Hug Machine over many nights, I had a lot of time to pay attention to Campbell’s book in detail, and came to see why my first cursory impression was at best premature, and at worst, just plain wrong.
Hug Machine caught me off guard because it’s ingeniously and deceptively simple: A young boy is portrayed with exaggeratedly long arms and oversized eyes, much as a child might draw himself. The watercolor illustrations are abstract so as to be reminiscent of a child’s artwork, which gives authenticity to the voice of the unnamed boy narrator. He describes his skill as a hug machine, taking the reader on a journey through a day filled with affection. He hugs people, trucks, animals, and more, each embrace resonating with energy. The Hug Machine‘s excitement is palpable as he moves from one target to another. And even after a tiring day of intense cuddles (a hug machine gets tired, even when he fortifies himself with pepperoni pizza), the little boy still musters just enough energy to fall into mama’s arms for one last embrace.
The Hug Machine‘s joie de vivre is not only charming, it’s pretty much true-to-life for the average preschooler or early elementary child. Anyone who’s ever wished their young one could learn to talk at a volume slightly less than super sonic will recognize the Hug Machine‘s breakneck speed, loud self-confidence, exaggerated expressions, and determined sense of mission. At the same time, there’s a certain droll humor in Campbell’s artwork, which might be secretly aimed at adults.
Hug Machine is so quirkily endearing as to be nearly impossible not to love. It will leave you and your little one ready to wrap your arms around each other. I challenge you and your favorite child not to finish this adorably buoyant book a little happier, huggier, and warmer inside than you were before encountering it.
Rebecca Jones has been a children’s librarian, a teen librarian, a reference librarian, an archivist, the kid who shelves all the library books, and (years back) an ice cream slinger. Now she works for her kids. The pay is paltry, but she finds the subjects quite amusing.