How much can you say with just one word? David McPhail’s almost-wordless picture book No! begins with a boy stamping an envelope addressed simply to “the President.” He puts on his coat and travels down empty, war-torn streets. Fighter jets streak overhead while tanks and soldiers appear on the road. As the boy silently continues on his way, somber-faced people peer out of windows. One man defaces a picture of the president, and a policeman and his wolf-like dog angrily chase him. When the boy reaches the mailbox, there is a bigger boy (a bully) leaning against it. The bully knocks off the boy’s hat, and the boy finally says the book’s one, powerful word, “No.” “No?” says the bully, scratching his head. As the bully leans aggressively toward the boy again, the boy then shouts “No!” The bully is stunned by his word and sits on the ground while the boy mails his letter.
As he returns down the street he walked before, the boy sees the policeman smiling, and his dog licking the face of the man they were chasing. The soldiers have wrapped presents in their hands instead of guns, and a tank pulls a farmer’s plow up a hill. Planes release a parachute holding a bicycle, which the (former) bully and the boy untangle and ride together, finally friends.
Simultaneously dark and empowering, No! symbolically shows how one person can make a difference. When the boy says “No,” and then sends his letter to the President, he affects an instant and perceptible change in the world. Illustrated in soft, sketchy drawings in the tradition of Maurice Sendak, No! can spark discussions of ways we can change the world, and gives the message that immense problems can sometimes be changed by the simple act of standing up to things that are wrong and saying “No.”
While it is appropriate for all ages, No! may be best used with older students (grades 3+)when covering local or world conflicts that are overwhelming and discouraging. There are many people in the world who have, in essence, said “no” to things they don’t believe in, and this book would be a good introduction to a biography unit on people who have stood up for the things in which they believe.
No! connects well with letter-writing campaigns and any movement toward social or political change. Use it (specifically mentioning the letter to the president) to discuss of the importance of speaking up about ways to positively change the world in addition to saying no to negative actions or behaviors.
No! could also be appropriate when discussing bullying behavior and examining the ways bullying can escalate. When the boy refuses to accept or internalize the bully’s behavior, he stops it. While the bully exhibits negative behavior, he is still a boy, and a boy with whom friendship is still possible. There is a parallel between the behaviors of one person and one political entity.