|The picture book ‘1000 Times No’ captures the frenzy and comedy of real-life tantrums. (Illustration From “1000 Times No’’)|
Tours de force for young readers
The world of children’s books is an unbelievably capacious place, and anyone who doubts it should take a look at this month’s two offerings, standing as they do at opposite ends of a continuum. One has to love an art form so malleable it makes room for this much variation - it also helps explain why children’s book librarians are among the happiest and best-read people on earth.
Parked very nearly at the beginning of the young reader’s spectrum is a nearly wordless picture-book tour de force by an author with the unlikely nom de plume of “Mr. Warburton’’ (né Thomas Warburton) - creator of popular television cartoons including “Codename: Kids Next Door.’’ “1000 Times No’’ is Warburton’s first children’s book, but one hopes it will not be his last. Picture books live somewhere between the speed of a poem and a painting, yet possess all the seeming power of a novel - often within fewer than 100 words, and Warburton gets it just right. The plot line, such as it is, could not be simpler. A mother tells her diapered child, “All right, Noah, dear. It’s time to leave,’’ and the child pitches a tantrum with more than three dozen linguistic and visual variations of the word no. Some get full pages, but most are divvied up into comic-strip style panels. Among my favorites are pig latin (“oh-nay’’), complete with pig snout; Morse code; cowboy (“nooooope’’); robot (“negative’’); zulu (“tsha’’), with mask; tricycle license plate; standing with back turned and saying it backwards; skywriting; spelling it out in peas on a plate; hurling it discus-style in ancient Greek. Even his name, Noah, contains the no word.
Of course children’s picture books are not just about repetition but the musical interplay of repetition and variation, so it is partly the sequencing of all the nos that account for its charms, and the utter transfiguration of the toddler from panel to panel, which gives the reader something of the true taste of frenzy and comedy that accompany real-life tantrums. The baby has a rubber face and body a la Mo Willems, and Warburton’s confident use of the cartoony line lends charm and dynamic movement to the book. Any child still young enough to have a meltdown will cherish the wild humor of this book. The color palette of “1000 Times No’’ stays mostly with baby-room pastels of pale blue, yellows, rose-washed reds, and toothpaste greens. Warburton’s line is loose and bold. Endpapers identify all 40 ways of saying no, from Russian to Hindi to “tin cans connected by string.’’ No library should be without it.
“After the Moment’’ by Garret Freymann-Weyr is a beautiful mess of a young-adult novel, with the emphasis on the beautiful. Freymann-Weyr’s writing is so exquisite, and second by second, so carefully and honestly rendered that it overwhelms nearly everything else, including a few serious plot blunders. Among her other accomplishments in “After the Moment’’ is a convincing first-person male narrative voice in the person of Leigh, the kind of young man of “fathomless good fortune’’ who tries and often succeeds in making other people happy. Popular, good-looking, athletic, he leads a life that seems to be clipping along at a predestined pace when his stepsister’s biological father dies unexpectedly, and Leigh moves in with his father and stepmother to try to ease the blow. In doing so, he meets the stepsister’s older friend, a troubled, lovely girl named Maia Morland.
Poor Leigh is sunk almost on sight. The reader sees it, even if he does not. He begins by tolerating, then befriending and attempting to rescue the peculiar young woman, and begins driving her two hours to visit her incarcerated stepfather. But though he wants to protect her, when he leaves town for a few days, she slides out of his grasp, and one dark event leads - all too improbably - to another. One may expend a little too much energy while reading “After the Moment’’ asking oneself: Why on earth would he ever do that? And then why would she do that? But the book’s strength lies in its moment by moment grace - and its unerring sense of voice. “Finally, he put the phone down and lay on the floor, as if the ceiling held answers to questions he had yet to think of asking.’’
All of the many secondary characters are marvelous - the bereaved and lovable younger stepsister Millie; Leigh’s father, so tersely uncommunicative he borders on emotionally disabled; even the teenage villains are convincingly nasty and brutish without plunging into stereotype. At the center of it all is Leigh’s desperate, reluctant, enduring adoration of Maia, as fine a portrait of first love as I’ve read. “She was narrow and almost fragile, but her eyes, with their wide, even gaze, held him as strongly as any grip.’’ Freymann-Weyr’s earlier book, “My Heartbeat,’’ was a Printz Honor Book; “After the Moment’’ ought to bring home a few awards, but more important, should win its author new and loyal readers.
Liz Rosenberg, author of the recently published “Home Repair,’’ her first adult novel, and more than two dozen works for young readers, teaches English at the State University of New York at Binghamton.