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Neverwhere

Imagination transforms worlds real and created in memorable children's books from 2007

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter F. Neumeyer
December 16, 2007

From among the outstanding picture books of 2007, one should certainly cite the following four, recognizing that doing so leaves out such marvels as Peter Sis's "The Wall," which demands a column unto itself, and Ian Falconer's "Olivia Helps With Christmas." A major characteristic the four described below share is that, whether for art, for text, or for a magical combination of the two, they are every bit as rich, surprising, or beautiful for an adult as for a child. And that's the measure of a fine children's book.

Consider, for example, the Australian artist/author/muralist Shaun Tan, who has created just such a work with the grand, 128-page wordless graphic novel "The Arrival." The atmospherics of the novel derive from its pervasive sepia hue, which evokes a bygone era recorded both in the narrative itself as well as its well-worn, simulated-antique photographs. These summon to mind turn-of-the-20th-century images of immigrants anywhere and everywhere, in Australia, in the United States, passing through Ellis Island, encountering worlds totally strange, and everywhere about them incomprehensible writing, bizarre customs, unrecognizable food, and the baffling daily routines and expectations of others.

The story is of a young man who leaves his family to earn money to send home until the time is ripe for his wife and daughter to join him in the new land. He enters the country through a frighteningly huge screening establishment, is subjected to murderous red tape, hunts for work. In fact, he comes to no harm. But it's the incomprehensibility of this elusive nightmare world that brings home to us the venturesome courage of our sepia hero. Happily, after long and lonely days, the man is able to bring over his family, and then they, in turn, shall thrive and grow and have their turn to ease the transition of those who follow.

Just like Tan's earlier books, "The Arrival" is about belonging, about having a home, as it were, and about communicating. Tan himself tells us this, for although he's hardly a household name here, neither is he a mystery. On his website (www.shauntan.net), the artist is not only articulate but actually loquacious, talking about his own past as the son of Malaysian immigrants to the Australian city of Perth, as well as what's on his mind and his intended meanings as developed in each of his books. Unique as the book may seem, "The Arrival" has both artistic antecedents (Australian painters Jeffrey Smart and John Brack) and a context in the creative evolution of the author.

Randolph Caldecott (1846-86), whose name graces the annual award for the best American illustrated children's book, created an illustrated version of the "Hey Diddle Diddle" nursery rhyme about the dish running away with the spoon that would be hard to surpass. Brave Mini Grey, author of the wildly original "Traction Man Is Here!" (2005), now gives a worthy try with "The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon," her mock-sentimental tale of an early-20th-century dish and spoon who become a hugely popular vaudeville team, fall in with bad company, become foiled bank robbers, serve time, are reunited 25 years later, and revive their old act. It's a good show, the pages are richly full of jokes, allusions, and diversions (Spoon in a cell protected by a "Doberman Lock," a lamppost sporting a "Lost Cow" notice, three volumes of insect books as several of the jail-dwelling bugs make their presence known). It's fast, light, amusing, clever.

One of the great names in both children's stories and illustration in the United States is that of Leo Lionni. His classic "Tico and the Golden Wings" (1964) is now reissued, letting us ponder once more that distinguished artist's usual preoccupations: the relationship between the individual and the crowd, and the loner/hero's assertion of uniqueness and distinction.

In this sumptuously executed short fable, a little bird, sporting opulent wings printed in glittering gold, bestows those prized golden feathers, one by one, first on a poor father who must buy medicine for his baby, then on an impoverished puppeteer, then on a woman in need of a spinning wheel. But his very last feather the gener ous bird saves to give to a beautiful bride. His own feathers, we can see, have now become "black as India ink," and - we are to understand - not a whit less beautiful. The little bird flies to find his fellows, who welcome him, but the last thought he has is the incontrovertible Lionni sentiment that, at heart, "we are all different."

The beauty of the book lies not in this cliché, but in its luxury, its aesthetic, its gorgeous densely colored patterns of trees and bushes, and the birds themselves, displaying their patterns of black, white, brown, and gold.

And on the subject of color, what could be more chromatically striking than the visual excitement of the complementary green and violet gracing the cover of Jeanette Winter's "Angelina's Island"? It's the simple tale of a little Jamaican girl, unhappily removed to New York, where she dreams of "my island in the sun" and its "mangos, guavas . . . breadfruit, callaloo, chocho." Seeing a gray urban pigeon, she flies home in her imagination, and summons up native birds of every conceivable hue. But finally, come Carnival day, the little girl wears her beautiful bright wings on her dress of every color - and once again, she feels she's home. "This is my island in the sun" - "this" being, not exactly Jamaica, but at least Manhattan.

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