Fortunately, the Milk
by Neil Gaiman, illus. by Skottie Young
When the father of two children--a boy and a girl--goes out to buy milk, he takes an inordinately long time. He has an explanation for his absence involving green globby aliens, pirates, dinosaurs and "Galactic Police." Is he telling the truth? Or is it a made-up adventure? Young readers will savor the hunt for evidence to support their views in Neil Gaiman's latest middle-grade novel.
Fortunately, the Milk provides an ideal bridge between the author's picture books (such as The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish and The Wolves in the Walls, both illustrated by longtime collaborator Dave McKean) and his more haunting fiction (such as Coraline and the Newbery Medal–winning The Graveyard Book). Milk, despite its much lighter tone, taps into the themes of these novels, traveling to worlds with other beings and the threat of being held captive there. Adult Gaiman fans who read Fortunately, the Milk to their children will also notice these themes resonating with his recent adult book The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
In Fortunately, the Milk, a boy narrator checks the fridge and finds no milk for his Toastios. His mother has gone to a conference to present a paper. So his father heads out to get the milk, and the boy and his younger sister wait... and wait and wait. Skottie Young's full-spread pen-and-ink drawing depicts the transition from the pristine home when their mother left to the books-and-papers-strewn checkered floor of the kitchen, indicating hours of seemingly endless waiting. The boy plays on his electronic device while his sister practices violin.
When the father returns, he has a story. After he bought the milk, he heard a noise ("thummthumm") coming from a silver disc hovering above Marshall Road, and he was sucked up into it. "Fortunately," said the father, "I had put the milk into my coat pocket." On board, green "globby" beings demand that the father hand over "ownership of the whole planet" so they can "remodel it." Instead, the father leaps out through a door marked "emergency exit," despite a warning from his captors that he would let in "the space-time continuum."
When he jumps, he keeps tight hold of the milk--a key theme throughout the book. Readers will see the milk bottle in Young's drawing, held upright in the father's right hand. Handlettered type ("falling") tumbles down the page right along with Dad, to the sketched-in waves below. When he's hauled up onto a little ship, and the Queen of the Pirates accuses him of spying, the milk supports the father's alibi. (Young draws an arrow from the milk's mention in the text to the bottle, sketched in the lower right-hand corner of the page.) In a feat of design, given the amount of text, this interplay continues throughout the book, with Young's drawings emphasizing events and supplementing the narrative.
The Pirate Queen tells the father he's fallen into the 18th century (confirming the warning about the space-time continuum). She offers him a Spanish doubloon and a chance to join her crew. His refusal ("I almost wish that I could.... But I have children. And they need their breakfast") prompts the pirates to make him walk the plank, with piranhas circling below. In the first of several interruptions, his son breaks into the story: "Piranhas are a freshwater fish. What were they doing in the sea?" Young indicates the boy's intrusion with an inset box showing the reaction of the two children as piranhas leap from the waves, teeth bared. ("You're right. The piranhas were later," says Dad.)
The father is rescued by a rope ladder extended from a hot air balloon, which its pilot, a stegosaurus, calls "Professor Steg's Floaty-Ball-Person-Carrier." While Professor Steg believes they are 150 million years in the future, the father (recalling the pirates' statement that it's the 18th century) expresses his belief that they are roughly 300 years in the past, and Gaiman thus--lightheartedly--introduces the idea that time is relative. And because Professor Steg has also invented a Time Machine that requires a "special-shiny-greeny-stone," so begins a series of adventures in their search to find the stone and return the father to his present--milk in hand.
Twice they get hold of the green stone, coming at it from two different time trips, which prompts the professor to explain his theory: "[A]ccording to my calculations, if the same object from two different times touches itself, one of two things will happen. Either the Universe will cease to exist. Or three remarkable dwarfs will dance through the streets with flowerpots on their heads." The father replies, "That sounds astonishingly specific." Yet time and again, the professor's theories are borne out. Fortunately, they resolve the dilemma without touching the two green stones (the same one, but from different time periods) together. But will a moment arrive when they are in a similar predicament, perhaps involving the milk? Yes.
Gaiman plays with the time loop in ways that will delight both science fiction enthusiasts and those who enjoy farfetched humor (at one point, the father borrows the milk from himself). Both the brother and sister get their moments in the spotlight, and the resourceful father, ever protective of the milk, has one goal in mind: his wish to return to his children and give them a good breakfast. His heroic efforts to thwart his enemies are all in service of that mission. And at story's end, he has the milk to prove it. --Jennifer M. Brown