I’m not a plastic bag is not a typical story by any means, as there are no words and no human characters. Oh yes, and our main character is a sentient pile of garbage named the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In this story, Patch is able to form eyes from the garbage it is made of to see the creatures of the world that are near it, and can talk to them via trashed signs. Patch mostly says the same things over and over again, “hello” and “please stay,” because it is lonely. All Patch wants is one friend, but who wants to be friends with a pile of garbage? Luckily Patch is able to convince a flock of gulls to gather together and lift Patch into the sky, where it can look down upon the rest of the world with a smile on its face.
I’m pretty sure that Rachel Hope Allison really wants to convey to readers that Patch is not a good thing and that we should take better care of our planet. While I definitely get the lesson that Patch is bad, I also picked up a couple of other things, neither of which I’m sure Allison meant to portray. The first is that Patch is sinister and evil. I mean like Joker evil. How else can you describe a story where the main character is a sentient patch of garbage that is reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster? Both are lonely, both accidentally kill a friend, and both are viewed as monsters by the rest of the world. Patch invites a gull to land for a rest, and then gives the gull a gift before it flies away…a plastic bag with a heart on it. Only later do we see that the bird died on Patch, killed by the so-called gift. The tale becomes even more sinister at the end, in which Patch is seemingly in the sky, invisible except for a vague cloud outline, and smiles down upon the world as it…spreads its garbage everywhere? The second way to perceive Patch is as a character that deserves our sympathy. Patch is lonely and just wants a friend. In any other tale, we would be cheering for the main character as it makes friends. But do we really want to encourage a garbage pile to have friends? The ambiguity of Patch’s motive gives the reader two different ways to interpret the story. Is Patch a supervillain that must be stopped? Or do we need to help find Patch a home where it can easily make new friends?
I do have to commend Allison for her skill and talent with watercolors, as they are gorgeous. The watercolors mixed with pencils create an evocative display that is dreamlike in nature, which may explain why the Patch is sentient. Allison does an excellent job of capturing the colors of the ocean and the nighttime sky, as well as showing how the Patch’s “tentacles” sway and move in the ocean. The one issue I have with the illustrations is that Patch is depicted as a single mass of items that you can see, but Patch in reality is made up of small microplastics, often floating just beneath the surface of the ocean. (For an easy-to-understand explanation of the real Great Pacific Garbage Patch, see this article from i09 that quotes a marine biologist who talks about the visibility and size of the trash.The more scholarly/reputable National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also has this brief section about the patch, which can be found here.) Often the patch cannot be seen from above. I understand that Allison chose to depict Patch this way so that readers can see it as a character, but it makes it seem like the patch can be easily cleaned up, which is not the case.
While Allison, Jeff Corwin (who wrote the introduction for the book), and others associated with the book’s creation should be commended for bringing such a serious issue to readers in this format, the story itself struggles with describing the problem accurately and with how the reader is supposed to perceive Patch. Both of these issues are ones that educators and librarians must be prepared to address, either in reading this story with a group or with an individual. One positive aspect of the book is that it does have a number of helpful resources and information at the end to explain what the patch really is, what we can do to stop it from growing, and what we can do to help clean it up. The resources at the end would help address the issues, as well as helping readers think about what they would do to get rid of the trash, and perhaps even create their own comic around it.