There are plenty of picture books about Valentine’s Day; not as many as other holidays like Halloween and Christmas, but a fair amount. My favorite Valentine’s Day story has to be Contrary Woodrow.
I found Contrary Woodrow at the public library. We have a small section of donated books available for sale, and this was where I found Contrary Woodrow. This picture book was written by Sue Felt and was published in 1958.
Contrary Woodrow is the story of a boy named Woodrow Woodington. His family has declared that he is contrary, and the first part of the book is dedicated to establishing his contrariness. Woodrow is the third of five children. Maybe this is why he has such an alliterative name. His older siblings are named John and Sally, so maybe his parents wanted to get a little creative. Woodrow’s younger siblings are named Elizabeth and Pete, so clearly, his parents went back to more traditional choices for baby names. Maybe Woodrow is so contrary because he’s saddled with such a name.
Woodrow’s parents try to say that the East Hill School might not take contrary children, but apparently, their fruitless threats do nothing to change his behavior, and off he goes to kindergarten. This is the olden days, so Woodrow is able to start school in January. Woodrow spends his first couple of weeks alternating between antagonizing the children, and not participating in their games. But when he hears the teacher talking about Valentine’s Day, he has an epiphany: he has been so busy being contrary that he has not made any friends. Woodrow is involved in a secret project, and no one knows what he is planning.
On Valentine’s Day, there is a special party, and Woodrow is on his best behavior. When it is time to pass out the cards, nobody gives Woodrow any valentines. Again, this is the olden days when children could do things like that to each other. But that’s when Woodrow shows everyone his surprise: he has made beautiful valentines for all of the children in the class. Everyone loves his valentines, and gives him one of their valentines. The story ends on a positive note with Woodrow being proud of the valentines (and friends) that he has.
The illustrations are lithographs, and they are full of 1950s charm and nostalgia. All of the little girls wear dresses to school, and there are glass milk bottles for them to drink at snacktime. There is a piano in the classroom, and inexplicably, candlesticks with candles.
My girls love this story. They are always outraged and indignant at Woodrow’s contrary behavior. There is also a certain delight in seeing such naughty behavior. What’s he going to do next? How is he able to get away with this? This is a cautionary tale, and this is a story of redemption. We are allowed to see the outcome of repeated antagonistic behavior. Woodrow acts like a malcontent, and the other children express their feelings about this by not making valentines for him. This is a little sad, but Woodrow redeems himself by doing something nice for his classmates. He has realized that being contrary is not something that he wants to do, and he changes his ways.
I would absolutely recommend Contrary Woodrow. It has been out of print for years, so it might be hard to find, but I have seen used copies on Amazon/eBay. It is worth seeking out though. Picture books have become much more sophisticated in the almost sixty years since Contrary Woodrow was published, and this is a throwback to a simpler time.