Picture Book Review: Friend or Foe? by John Sobol & Dasha Tolstikova
“A lonely mouse lived in a small house beside a great palace. In the great palace lived a cat.”
Each night the mouse gazes up at the cat in the palace tower. Is the cat my friend? he wonders. Determined to find out, he bravely makes his way into the palace through a tiny hole and climbs all the way up to the tower, where the cat sits on the windowsill.
“Hello, are you friend or foe?” he squeaks.
This simple story by John Sobol has a surprising outcome, giving young readers a chance to draw their own conclusions. It is perfectly complemented by Dasha Tolstikova’s subtle yet striking illustrations.
As soon as I finished reading Friend or Foe? I immediately looked around our living room as if, there in the late night, I would find an audience to talk to about this picture book. I smiled with relief as I knew I would get to share my thoughts about this wonderful and surprising book here (and at the library!)! Written by John Sobol and illustrated by Dasha Tolstikova (A Year Without Mom), Friend or Foe? is an ingenious fable-like tale of one mouse, one cat and one big question that hovers over them.
At the core of Friend or Foe?, mouse wonders whether the white cat he sees up high in the palace and gazes at each night is his friend or his foe. Do hours of exchanged glances and eye contact mean that they are friends? What would happen if mouse were to find his way to the palace and to the cat- what might happen then? As we join mouse along on his journey up through the shadowed passages of the palace, trepidation and wondering grows bit by bit. In what we think might be the moment of truth for both mouse and cat, the story turns a surprise and upends in a brilliant way leaving much for discussion at the closing. In my reviews of picture books, I often talk about fit– that divine match between an author’s words and an illustrator’s artwork. In Friend or Foe?, the fit between Sobol’s writing of the story and Tolstikova’s illustrations is superb. Both writing and illustration in Friend or Foe? are unobtrusive: that attentive quietness in story (use of repetition, just right diction) and restrained artwork (limited use of colour, gentle play with background, scenery and scale) actually allows for the entire story itself to be all the more compelling, unique and worthy of multiple reads.
Overall, Friend or Foe? is a terrific and surprising picture book. Written and illustrated in the subtlest, most perfect of manners to allow for the major dilemma of the story to take main stage, this is a winning read. Any readers already familiar with Dasha Tolstikova’s artwork might want to take a look here at her stunning picture book work; readers who appreciate their picture books with dashes of surprise, or who enjoy picture books from authors such as Levi Pinfold, Leo Lionni, Lane Smith, Emily Hughes or Candace Fleming, might especially love Friend or Foe?.
I received a copy of this title courtesy of Groundwood Books in exchange for an honest review. All opinions and comments are my own.