Monday, January 11, 2010

I really enjoyed Henry In Love

This isn't a comic book or graphic novel, but rather a picture book for children. Let's not hold that against it though—Henry In Love features beautifully rendered artwork and a charming story told partially through words, but the real emotional content and narrative thrust is propelled by the way those pictures and words interact.

Like I said, it isn't comics, but it works in a way that is not unlike the way comics work.

And it's really, really good.

Henry In Love (Harper Collins) is the work of Peter McCarty, a fairly prolific picture book author and illustrator. The artwork, the small print informs us, was created on "Fabrianao 140 lb. hot press watercolor paper with Sennelier shellac-based colored inks and Winsor and Newton watercolors."

It's really something. Henry is an anthropomorphic cat (or possibly a chinchilla or some other form of small, long-tailed mammal). He's also a little kid. Like the rest of the characters—various anthropomorphized animals in a human-like society where cat and dog live in peace, Henry is a soft, round, wide, blank-faced designed. McCarty's characters all have open, practically expression-less faces that make them seem innocent and guile-less and, incidentally, an awful lot like real animals, despite their clothes, speech and human-like rituals.

McCarty draws each of the animals with a great deal of detail, giving them a dense presence—they seem three dimensional, in possession of weight and at the command of gravity. Their clothes and settings, by contrast, are minimalistic in their detail. McCarty leaves wide borders of empty white space around the characters, and the settings are often nothing more than white space, with perhaps a line or prop here or there to suggest a sense of place.

It's an interesting effect. You can see what seems like every hair on the little mammals' faces, and they're drawn not unlike the animals in old illustrated naturalists' books, but it's a sharp contrast to the world around them. The result is that McCarty's character's pop off the page, and each character and each line of the simple, sentence-per-page narration seems more important.

The story is deceptively simple, and quite darling. It opens with the words "Heny awoke to the smell of blueberry muffins." His mother had made the muffins that morning to pack in his lunch and that of his older brother. We follow Henry as he gets ready for school, walks to school and goes through his day. About halfway through, there's a bit of foreshadowing about the object of his affection, who we meet in a double-page spread.

Her name is Chloe and she's a little white rabbit—the kids in their desks sitting on either side of her disappear as Henry looks at her, and she appears in a blossom-strewn field of the same sort we saw Henry dreaming of before the story began on the title pages.

There's some cute little kid romance, in which Henry attempts to talk to Chole, but instead of, like, saying anything, he does "his best forward roll" to impress her. She responds by turning "a perfect cartwheel." Henry was impressed. Then they play tag. And, at the climax, the teacher has the students change their seating arrangements—which I remember being a pretty dramatic event in my own grade school years, and McCarty certainly conveys that drama here.

Without spoiling it—and man, it's actually pretty suspenseful near the end, when McCarty packs a single page with many images and an awful lot of words compared to the pages that preceded it—the story ends quite perfectly, with a few call backs, visual and verbal, to the very beginning of the book.

It's not just cute, it's not just charming, it's something even better—it's satisfying.

I may not be doing a very good job as an advocate for it, so let's just look at some art, okay? Please bear in mind that the book is a big square one, in the neighborhood of ten-by-ten inches, and thus doesn't fit on the scanner I use.

Here's one of the more elegant images of Henry being in little kid-love. He only has eyes for Chloe: This is during recess and Henry was just tagged it. All of the kids scatter, but he looks intently at Chloe, ignoring all the others. The only words on this page are, "The chase was on!"

Here's a pretty cropped image of Henry at lunch: Note the blueberry muffin. McCarty colors them blue. I love that detail, although I'm hard-pressed to explain why. I suppose because it's so unusual.

Early on, there's a two-page spread showing a bunch of Henry's classmates, and here's one of them: I mentioned the sort of blank-faced, animal-like expressions on the animal characters. I particularly like this drawing of some random classmate of Henry's. In addition to the expressions, there's a neat incongruity in the way McCarty draws the fur of the characters so realistically, but the shape is so loose and cartoony. Note how the clothes look almost like they belong to a different story entirely. I love this dog and his little tie.

Finally, here's an image of Henry and his brother Tim at the breakfast table:
Again you can see there are differing levels of representation in different aspects of the image. For example, the cereal box and milk carton are so barely-there you can see right through them to the table beyond. They're shaded, but not as meticulously as the toast or the characters.

Anyway, that's Henry In Love. You might want to consider taking a look at it the next time you're in the children's section of your local library or in a big box book store or wherever it is you encounter picture books.


Nice Jewish Artist said...

Wow, those are so cute, yet so vacant. Love em!

kathycalder said...

I have a recipe for blueberry muffins that produces muffins that are actually blue. One doesn't often eat blue foods--it's awesome!