There is a story out there, and I don’t know if it is true, that the great children’s librarian Anne Carroll Moore had such a low opinion of children’There is a story out there, and I don’t know if it is true, that the great children’s librarian Anne Carroll Moore had such a low opinion of children’s books that involved “gimmicks” (read: interactive elements of any sort) that upon encountering them she’d dismiss each and every one with a single word: Truck. If it was seen as below contempt, it was “truck”. Pat the Bunny, for example, was not to her taste, but it did usher in a new era of children’s literature. Books that, to this day, utilize different tricks to engage the interest of child readers. In the best of cases the art and the text of a picture book are supposed to be of the highest possible caliber. To paraphrase Walter de la Mare, only the rarest kind of best is good enough for our kids, yes? That said, not all picture books have to attempt to be works of great, grand literature and artistic merit. There are funny books and silly ones that do just as well. Take it a step even farther, and I’d say that the interactive elements that so horrified Ms. Moore back in the day have great potential to aid in storytelling. Though she would be (rightly) disgusted by books like Rainbow Fish that entice children through methods cheap and deeply unappealing, I fancy The Red Hat would have given her pause. After considering the book seriously, a person can’t dismiss it merely because it tends towards the shiny. Lovingly written and elegantly drawn, Teague and Portis flirt with transparent spot gloss, but it’s their storytelling and artistic choices that will keep their young readers riveted.
With a name like Billy Hightower, it’s little wonder that the boy in question lives “atop the world’s tallest building”. It’s a beautiful view, but a lonely one, so when a construction crew one day builds a tower across the way, the appearance of a girl in a red hat intrigues Billy. Desperate to connect with her, he attempts various methods of communication, only to be stumped by the wind at every turn. Shouting fails. Paper airplanes plummet. A kite dances just out of reach. Then Billy tries the boldest method of reaching the girl possible, only to find that he himself is snatched from her grasp. Fortunately a soft landing and a good old-fashioned elevator trump the wind at last. Curlicues of spot gloss evoke the whirly-twirly wind and all its tricksy ways.
Great Moments of Spot Gloss in Picture Book History: Um . . . hm. That’s a stumper. I’m not saying it’s never happened. I’m just saying that when I myself try to conjure up a book, any book, that’s ever used it to proper effect, I pull up a blank. Now what do I mean exactly when I say this book is using this kind of “gloss”? Well, it’s a subtle layer of shininess. Not glittery, or anything so tawdry as that. From cover to interior spreads, these spirals of gloss evoke the invisible wind. They’re lovely but clearly mischievous, tossing messages and teasing the ties of a hat. Look at the book a couple times and you notice that the only part of the book that does not contain this shiny wind is the final two-page image of our heroes. They’re outdoors but the wind has been defeated in the face of Billy’s persistence. If you feel a peace looking at the two kids eyeing one another, it may have less to do with what you see than what you don’t.
Naturally Antoinette Portis is to be credited here, though I don’t know if the idea of using the spot gloss necessarily originated with her. It is possible that the book’s editor tossed Portis the manuscript with the clear understanding that gloss would be the name of the game. That said, I felt like the illustrator was given a great deal of room to grow with this book. I remember back in the day when her books Not a Box and Not a Stick were the height of 32-page minimalism. She has such a strong sense of design, but even when she was doing books like Wait and the rather gloriously titled Princess Super Kitty her color scheme was standard. In The Red Hat all you have to look at are great swath of blue, the black and white of the characters, an occasional jab of gray, and the moments when red makes an appearance. There is always a little jolt of red (around Billy’s neck, on a street light, from a carpet, etc). It’s the red coupled with that blue that really makes the book pop. By all rights a red, white, and blue cover should strike you on some level as patriotic. Not the case here.
Not that the book is without flaw. For the most part I enjoyed the pacing of the story. I loved the fairytale element of Billy tossed high into the sky by a jealous wind. I loved the color scheme, the gloss, and the characters. What I did not love was a moment near the end of the book where pertinent text is completely obscured by its placement on the art. Billy has flown and landed from the sky. He’s on the ground below, the wind buffeting him like made. He enters the girl’s building and takes the elevator up. The story says, “At the elevator, he punched UP, and he knocked at the first door on the top floor.” We see him extending his hand to the girl, her hat clutched in the other. Then you turn the page and it just says, “The Beginning.” Wait, what? I had to go back and really check before I realized that there was a whole slew of text and dialogue hidden at the bottom of that previous spread. Against a speckled gray and white floor the black text is expertly camouflaged. I know that some designers cringe at the thought of suddenly interjecting a white text box around a selection of writing, but in this particular case I’m afraid it was almost a necessity. Either than or toning down the speckles to the lightest of light grays.
Aside from that, it’s sublime. A sweet story of friendship (possibly leading to more someday) from the top of the world. Do we really believe that Billy lives on the top of the highest building in the world? Billy apparently does, and that’s good enough for us. But even the tallest building can find its match. And even the loneliest of kids can, through sheer pig-headed persistence, make their voices heard. A windy, shiny book without a hint of bluster.
Alas for poor emu. Forever relegated to be consider a second rate ostrich, it encompasses all of the awkwardness and none of the stereotypes. Does anyAlas for poor emu. Forever relegated to be consider a second rate ostrich, it encompasses all of the awkwardness and none of the stereotypes. Does anyone ever talk about burying your head in the sand like an emu? They do not. Are schoolchildren routinely called upon to ooh and aah at the size of an emu’s egg? They aren’t. And when you watch Swiss Family Robinson, do you ever find yourself wishing that the kids would try to saddle an emu for the big race? Not even once. Emus are the second largest living bird in terms of height, coming right after the ostrich, and you might be fooled into believing that they are the less interesting of the two. There, you are wrong. Wrongdy wrongdy wrong wrong wrong. I do not wish to start a war of words with the prominent ostrich societies of the world, but after reading Emu by Claire Saxby (illustrated by Graham Byrne) I’m a bit of what you might consider an emu convert. Chock full of interesting information and facts about what a typical emu might experience in its day-to-day life, the book is full of thrills, chills, and a species that gives stay-at-home dads everywhere a true animal mascot.
Meet the emu. Do not be offended if he fails to rise when you approach. At the moment he is safeguarding a precious clutch of eggs from elements and predators. While many of us consider the job of hatching eggs to be something that falls to the female of the species, emus are different. Once they’ve laid their eggs, female emus just take off, and it is the male emu that hatches and rears them. In this particular example, the male emu has a brood of seven or so chicks but though they’re pretty big (ten times bigger than a domestic chicken hatchling) they need their dad for food, shelter, and protection. The chicks find their own food right from the start and within three to four months they’ve already lost their first feathers. They zigzag to escape predators, live with their fathers for about a year, and have a kick like you would not believe. Backmatter of the book provides more information about emus, as well as an index.
This is not what you might call Saxby and Byrne’s first rodeo show. The Aussie duo previously had paired together on the book Big Red Kangaroo, a book that did just fine for itself. Following a kangaroo called “Red”, the ostensibly nonfiction title was best described by PW as, “An understated but visually arresting portrait of a species.” For my part I had no real objections to the book, but neither did I have anything for it. Kangaroo books are not rare in my children’s rooms, though the book was different in that it was written for a younger reading level. That same reading level is the focus of Emu and here I feel that Saxby and Byrne have started to refine their technique. One of the problems I had with Red was this naming of the titular kangaroo. It felt false in a way. Like the author didn’t trust the readers enough to show them a typical day in the life of an animal without having to personalize it with faux monikers. Byrne’s art too felt flatter to me in that book than it does here. This may have more to do with the subject matter than anything else, though. Emu faces, after all, are inherently more amusing and interesting than kangaroos
In terms of the text, Saxby utilizes a technique that’s proven very popular with teachers as of late. When kids in classrooms are given open reading time there can sometimes be a real range in reading levels. With this in mind, sometimes nonfiction picture books about the natural world will contain two types of text. There will be the more enticing narrative, ideal for reading aloud to a group or one-on-one. Then, for those budding naturalists, there will be a complementary second section that contains the facts. On the first two pages of Emu, for example, one side introduces the open forest with its “honey-pale sunshine” and the emu’s job while the second block of text, written in a small font that brings to mind an expert’s crisp clean handwriting, gives the statistics about emu (whether or not they can fly, their weight, height, etc.). In the back of the book under the Index there’s actually a little note about these sections. It says, “Don’t forget to look at both kinds of words”, and then writes the words “this kind and this kind” in the two different fonts.
Artist Graham Byrne’s bio says that he’s an electrical engineer, builder, and artist. This is his second picture book and the art is rendered digitally. What it looks like is scratchboard art, with maybe an ink overlay as well. I enjoyed the sense of place and the landscapes but what really made me happy was how Byrne draws an emu. There’s something about that bright yellow eye in the otherwise impassive face that gets me. I say impassive, but there are times when one wonders if Byrne is fighting an instinct to give his emu some expression. There's a scene of the emu nosing his eggs, his beak appears to be curling up in just the slightest of smiles. Later an eagle threatens his brood and there’s almost a hint of a frown as he runs over to the rescue. It’s not enough to take you out of the story, but such images bear watching.
In comparing the emu to the ostrich I may have omitted certain pertinent details. After all, the emu doesn’t have it quite so bad. It appears on the Australian coat of arms, as well as on their money. There was an Emu War of 1932 where the emus actually won the day. Heck, it’s even not too difficult to find emus on farms in the United States. Still, culturally they’ve a far ways to go if ever they are to catch up with their ostrichy brethren fame-wise. Books like this one will help. I think there must be plenty of teachers out there a little tired of using Eric Carle’s Mister Seahorse as their de facto responsible-dads-in-the-wild motif. Now kids outside of Australia will get a glimpse of this wild, wacky, wonderful and weird creature. Consider it worth meeting.
Last evening I was reading Quest by Aaron Becker to my daughter for bedtime. It’s a good book. I’ve read it approximately 20 times by now, so I shouldLast evening I was reading Quest by Aaron Becker to my daughter for bedtime. It’s a good book. I’ve read it approximately 20 times by now, so I should know. Anyway, we’re reading the book, which is wordless and requires that the reader really pay attention to the story, and as we start I point out to my daughter some feature at the beginning involving statues. Immediately she countered with a different statue detail at the back of the book that I, though having read this story over and over again, had completely and totally missed. That’s the cool thing about child readers. Not only do they find the details the adults are completely oblivious to, but on top of that they’re coming up with cool narratives and storylines of their own, on spinning off of the ones conceived of by the author/illustrators. So when I see a book like One Day, The End I just wanna put my hands together and applaud. Rebecca Kai Dotlich is a genius (and Fred Koehler ain’t sleeping on the job either). She figured out that for kids a story is just as much a product of the relationship between a child and a book’s pictures as it is between a child and a book’s words. Sometimes more. Sometimes much more. And sometimes they’ll be handed a book like this one that lets them examine and indulge to their heart’s delight.
Do you know how to tell a story? It’s easy! Listen to a couple of these. “One day... I felt like stomping. Stomp stomp stomp stomp stomp stomp stomp stomp stomp stomp stomp stomp.” “One day... I lost my dog. I found him.” “One day... I ran away. I cam home.” A small girl tells her tales with a minimum of words. Yet hidden in these words, sometimes literally, are epic narratives. The most ordinary of actions can turn into huge adventures. By the end, the girl is writing whole books out of what could normally be seen as mundane everyday actions. Yet two sentences can yield a whole lot of action.
These days the buzzword of the hour appears to be “visual storytelling” or “visual learning”. And why not? We live in a world of constant, perpetual, enticing screens (or “shiny rectangles” as my brother-in-law likes to call them). Graphic novels have achieved a level of respect and quality hitherto unknown in the history of publishing and I don’t think it’s a stretch to believe that there are more picture books being published today than ever before. Into this brave new world come the kids, their minds making connections and storylines. They mix reality and fantasy together with aplomb. They give their toys lives and thoughts and feelings. So to see a book that sets them free to give these imaginings a little form and structure? That’s great.
On the most basic level, the book is perfect for class writing prompts. The teacher tells the kids to pick a two-sentence story in the book and expand upon it. It works to a certain extent, but I wonder if in some ways it sort of skips the point of the book itself. One of the many points of One Day, The End is that when it comes to picture books, storytelling can be more than simply whatever it is that the words say. Another point is that you don’t have to be loquacious to tell a story. Two sentences will do. It would be fun to do an exercise with kids where they tell two-sentence stories. Two sentences takes off a lot of pressure. There’s no need to include a rise and fall to the action. Anyone can tell a story (a valuable lesson). This book shows you how.
All that aside, the ending of the book was particularly interesting to me. Picture book authors that can stick the landing (as it were) when they finish their stories are rare birds. Such books don’t necessarily come along every day. That said, the ending of One Day, The End is rather magnificent. The whole book until this point has been showing the reader that in the shortest of stories there can be whole epic narratives. So when our young heroine begins by saying “One Day... I wanted to Write a Book” the accompanying picture shows her at a typewriter (a retro move) imagining a whole host of new situations. Turn the page and the following “So I did” shows a line of thick books, each one with a title that relates to the tiny two sentence stories we witnessed before. The implication at work here for kids is that even in the briefest of moments of our lives, which adults might hurry through or remember in abbreviated ways, there are untold tales just waiting to be told. This book is for the five-year-old burgeoning writer. This character wanted to write a book and did. Who’s to say you couldn’t do the same?
I didn’t recognize Fred Koehler’s style the first time I read through this book. Maybe this is a little more understandable when I mention that he only just debuted this year with his own picture book, How to Cheer Up Dad. That book starred affectionate pachyderms. This one, all too human humans. In order to bring Dotlich’s story to life, Koehler sets the action in a kind of timeless past. Cell phones computers, and even televisions are not in evidence. There’s one sequence when our heroine is playing hide-and-go-seek with her brother and we see a large swath of their home together. It’s rather technologically barren, a fact drilled home later when the typewriter makes its somewhat inexplicable appearance. Fortunately, Koehler has a lot going for him, beyond this attempt at timelessness. The font of the story is practically a tale in and of itself, always shifting and changing to suit the described action. And the layouts! I don’t mind saying that part of the reason this book feels so fresh and interesting and fun has a lot to do with Koehler’s layouts. The words that make up the stories appear as part of the illustrated scenes, sometimes dominating the action and sometimes playing a role in it. For example, the story that begins with “One day… I wanted to be a spy” actually shows the girl peering between the letters of “spy”
I also loved that Koehler wasn’t afraid to reward rereadings. Attentive readers will be able to witness the smaller sub-adventures of a cat, a squirrel, a bird, and a little white dog that appear in the periphery of all the action. Then there are even smaller details that you wouldn’t notice on a first glance. The story, “I went to school. I came home” shows our plucky young gal dilly-dallying on her way to class (following a cat that will come up again in a later tale) only to accidentally leave her books somewhere en route. She runs to her classroom, but sharp-eyed spotters will note her missing backpack. Next thing you know the class is following instructions on doing science experiments and she peers at her neighbor (every kid doing the experiments is looking at their book, save her), and accidentally pours her solution into the wrong beaker. And there are other details about the characters themselves that are worth discovering, like that our storyteller always wears mismatched socks. As for the callbacks, if you pay attention you’ll see that an element that appears in one story (like a rubber boot placed over a flower in the rain) may later crop up again later (that same flower grows out of the boot a little later).
To sum up, why not take a page out of this book? One day... I read a picture book. It was great. The End....more
I gotta come clean with you. Skeletons? I’ve got a thing for them. Not a “thing” as in I find them attractive, but rather a “thing” as in I find themI gotta come clean with you. Skeletons? I’ve got a thing for them. Not a “thing” as in I find them attractive, but rather a “thing” as in I find them fascinating. I always have. Back in the 80s there was a science-related Canadian television show called “Owl TV” (a Canuck alternative to “3-2-1 Contact”) and one of the regular features was a skeleton by the name of Bonaparte who taught kids about various scientific matters. But aside from the odd viewing of “Jason and the Argonauts”, walking, talking (or, at the very least, stalking) skeletons don’t crop up all that often when you become grown. So maybe my attachment to Human Body Theater with its knobby narrator has its roots deep in my own personal history. Or maybe it has something more to do with the witty writing, untold gobs of nonfiction information, eye-catching art, and general sense of intelligence and care. Whatever the case, it turns out the human body puts on one heckuva good show!
When a human skeleton comes out and offers to right there, before your very eyes, become a fully formed human being with guts, skin, etc. who are you to refuse? Tonight the human body itself is putting on a show and everyone from the stagehands (the cells) to the players (whether they’re body parts or viruses) is fully engaged and involved. With our narrator’s help we dive deep beneath the skin and learn top to bottom about every possible system our bods have to offer. When all is said and done the readers aren’t just intrigued. They’re picking the book up to read it again and again. Backmatter includes a Glossary of terms and a Bibliography for further reading.
I’ve been a big time Maris Wicks fan for years. It started long ago when I was tooling around a MOCCA (Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art) event and ran across just the cutest little paperback picture book. It couldn’t have been much bigger than a coaster and all it was was a story about a family taking a daytrip to the woods. Called Yes, Let’s it was written by Galen Goodwin and illustrated by a Maris Wicks. I didn’t know either of these people. I just knew the book was good, and when it was published officially a couple years later by Tanglewood Publishing I felt quite justified. But for all that I’d been a fan, I didn’t recognize Ms. Wicks’ work or name, at first, when she illustrated Jim Ottaviani’s Primates. When the connection was made I felt like I’d won a small lottery. Now she’s gone solo with Human Body Theater and the only question left in anybody’s mind is . . . why didn’t she do it sooner? She’s a natural!
Now for whatever reason my four-year-old is currently entranced by this book. She’s naturally inclined to love graphic novels anyway (thank you, Cece Bell) and something in Human Body Theater struck a real chord with her. It’s not hard to figure out why. Visually it’s consistently arresting. Potentially dry material, like the method by which oxygen travels from the lungs to the blood, is presented in the most eclectic way possible (in this case, like a dance). Wicks keeps her panels vibrant and consistently interesting. One minute we might be peering into the inner workings of the capillaries and the next we’re zooming with the blood through the body delivering nutrients and oxygen. The colorful, clear lined style certainly bears a passing similarity to the work of author/artists like Raina Telgemeier, while the ability imbue everything, right down to the smallest atom, with personality is more along the lines of Dan Green’s “Basher Books” series.
For my part, I was impressed with the degree to which Wicks is capable of breaking complex ideas down into simple presentations. The chapters divide neatly into The Skeletal System, The Muscular System, The Respiratory System, The Cardiovascular System, The Digestive System, The Excretory System, The Endocrine System, The Reproductive System, The Immune System, The Nervous System, and the senses (not to mention an early section on cells, elements, and molecules). As impressive as her art is, it's Wicks’ writing that I feel like we should really credit here. Consider the amount of judicious editing she had to do, to figure out what to keep and what to cut. How do you, as an author, transition neatly from talking about reproduction to the immune system? How do you even tackle a subject as vast as the senses? And most importantly, how gross do you get? Because the funny bones of 10-year-olds demand a certain level of gross out humor, while the stomachs of the gatekeepers buying the book demand that it not go too far. I am happy to report that Ms. Wicks walks that tightrope with infinite skill.
One of the parts of the book I was particularly curious about was the sex and reproduction section. I’ve seen what Robie H. Harris has gone through with her It’s Perfectly Normal series on changing adolescent bodies, and I wondered to what extent Wicks would tread similar ground. The answer? She doesn’t really. Sex is addressed but images of breasts and penises are kept simple to the point of near abstraction. As such, don’t be relying on this for your kid’s sex-ed. There are clear reasons for this limitation, of course. Books that show these body parts, particularly graphic novels, are restricted by some parents or school districts. Wicks even plays with this fact, displaying a sheet covering what looks like a possible penis, only to reveal a very tall sperm instead. And Wicks doesn’t skimp on the info. The chapter on The Reproductive Cycle, for example, contains the delightful phrase, “ATTENTION: Would some blood please report to the penis for a routine erection.” So I’ve no doubt that there will be a parent somewhere who is offended in some way. However, it’s done so succinctly that I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if it causes almost no offense during its publication lifespan (but don’t quote me on that one).
If there is a problem with the book it may come right at the very beginning. Our skeleton hero introduces herself and from there you would expect her to jump right in to Human Body Theater with the bones. Instead, the storyline comes to a near screeching halt from the get go with a laborious explanation of cells, elements, and molecules. It’s not that these things aren’t important or interesting. Indeed, you can more than understand why they come at the beginning the way that they do. But as the book currently stands, this section feels like it was added in at the last minute. If it was going to preface the actual “show” then couldn’t it have been truly separate from the main event and act as a kind of pre-show entertainment?
What parent wouldn’t admit a bit of a thrill when their kid points to their own femur and declares proudly that it’s the longest bone in the human body? Or off-the-cuff speculates on the effects of the appendix on other body functions? We talk a lot about children’s books that (forgive the phrase) “make learning fun”, but how many actually do? When I wrack my brain for fun human body books, I come up surprisingly short. Here then is a title that can push against a certain kind of reader’s reluctance to engage with science on any level. It’s for the science lovers and graphic novel lovers alike (and lord knows the two don’t always overlap). More fun than it has any right to be. No bones about it....more