Saturday, January 30, 2010

Three picture books of note

1.) Jeremy Draws a Monster (Henry Holt and Company) A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about a rather exceptional picture book, Henry In Love by Peter McCarty. It was such an impressive work that on my next trip to the library, I grabbed just about everything of McCarty's that was in at the time. Some of them were fairly engaging (Hondo and Fabian, T is for Terrible), some of them did nothing for me (Baby Steps, Moon Plane), but by far the best of the lot, the one that came closest to replicating a lot of what I liked about Henry In Love, was Jeremy Draws a Monster.

This is the book that immediately preceded Henry (by just a few months, actually), and the art style is extremely similar, right up to and including the way McCarty allows one to see through some elements of some of his drawings, and the sort of zen blank expressiveness of the character designs.

Unlike Henry, Jeremy is a human being, although he's not rendered all that representational a human being. In super-simple, declarative sentences, we learn that Jeremy spends all of his time alone in his room/apartment drawing, while other kids all play together outside. The things Jeremy draws become "real," or at least as real as he imagines them to be (or, at most, as real as Jeremy himself is to us as readers), which makes the very drawn-looking style, in which McCarty allows readers to think of his drawings as drawings instead of trying to disguise the fact by covering up all the unnecessary lines, appropriate.

Everything in Jeremy's room looks like he himself may have drawn it.

When we get to the event referenced in the title, we see that he draws the monster not on paper, but in the air in the middle of his room and, two of McCarty's illustrations later, there's an awesome-looking monster standing there. You can see the monster design on the cover above. It may be more difficult to tell online than in person, but the monster's skin is composed of blue ink line simple as the design itself is, the monster looks quite thoroughly sketched as if with a cheap blue Bic pen, the sort of thing a talented artist might draw in the back of his school notebook during a very boring lecture.

The monster turns out to be a monstrous house guest, rudely demanding things from Jeremy, and Jeremy draws them as best as he can (which is pretty good, considering he draws a lot like McCarty).

"Draw me a sandwich. I'm hungry!" it demands (without saying thank you when he get it). "Draw me a comfortable chair. Draw me a television. I want to watch the game. And draw me a hot dog too," and so on.

My favorite part is when the monster says, "Are you going to sit there all day? Draw me a hat. I'm going out!" And Jeremy, who silently responds to each request, with a blank face that never betrays any exasperation, comes up with this big fancy red top hat:
I love that. Where is the monster going? Why does the monster think it needs a hat to go out, or to go where he's going? Does he need a hat? Why does Jeremy draw that hat? Why does the monster and Jeremy both agree that that's a good hat for a monster to go out in? As you can probably tell, I found the suggestion of the story of the monster's hat enormously intriguing and entertaining all by itself, and that's only, like, two pages of the story.

That's not the whole story of the book though, and when Jeremy gets (quietly, blank faced-ly) fed up with the monster and draws him a one-way bus ticket out of town, the gentle conflict suggested at the beginning of the story is resolved. There's a moral to the story, but it's one that's just kind of there if you want to look for it; otherwise, the story works quite perfectly on a "this happened, then this happened, then this happened" sort of level. In other words, it have varying levels of complexity and is thus able to address various audience of different age levels. That makes it a pretty perfect children's picture book, if you ask me.

2.) The Red Book (Houghton Mifflin) Not to be confused with that big crazy Carl Jung book, or the report on infectious diseases, this is a Caldecott-winning, wordless picture book by Barbara Lehman. How wordless is it? Well, the cover doesn't even feature the title (The spine has "The Red Book" on it, though, and the title is almost hidden on the title page).

It's one of those children's picture books that is of some interest to comics readers/thinkers/talk about-ers, because of how close it is to being straight comics...close enough that it may actually be comics, depending on where you want to draw the line between comics and not-comics.

Because it's wordless, there's no prose involved at all, which would eliminate it from being classified as illustrated prose. Most of the pages are not divided into comics-like grids, but each full-page functions as a single comic book panel. And then there are a couple of pages like this
which are divided into comics page-like grids.

So, comics? Not comics? I don't know. I think Comics can legitimately claim Lehman's Red Book if Comics is so inclined.

The story is that of a little girl who finds a magical book which allows her to see what's happening to a little boy who's very far away. Which is the same magic all books have really, although the ability to look in on exotic locales and faraway people, and to even visit with them, is rendered literal...and two-way...and three-way.

3.) Bunny Days (Dial Books) This is the follow-up to Tao Nyeu's 2008 book Wonder Bear (Previously discussed here), and is composed of three shorter stories, each featuring a half dozen little white rabbits getting into some sort of trouble, and then getting out of that trouble with the help of a big white bear with big claws that looks an awful lot like the bear in Wonder Bear (although he seems to employ more technological know-how than magic in his problem-solving here).

In "Muddy Bunnies," the bunnies are splashed with mud from Mr. Goat's tractor, and the bear puts them in a washing machine that's incongruously set up and working on a hill (Don't worry, the bear uses the delicate cycle). In "Dusty Bunnies," Mrs. Goat is vacuuming the grass for some reason, using a vacuum cleaner with a little face on it and she accidentally sucks up all the bunnies. Bear dusts them off, fixes the vacuum and solves the problem of bunnies being accidentally sucked up by vacuum cleaners in the future. And finally, in "Bunny Tails", Mr. Goat is trimming hedges when he accidentally cuts off the bunnies' little cotton ball tails. Bear re-attaches them...with a sewing a machine.

Nyeu's art retains the considerable virtues it displayed in Wonder Bear, and the marriage of domesticity with wild nature gives the entire book an amusing incongruity. Additionally, there's a refreshing (naughty?) sense of danger in the way one character sticks others in the washing machine or puts them under a sewing machine, without fine print saying "Bunnies are trained professionals. Don't try this at home."

Unlike Wonder Bear, which was silent, each of these stories is told with words as well as pictures, and each one of them ends with the words "Everyone is happy," a fresh, new, simpler and more realistic version of "They all lived happily ever after." Perhaps the formulation is necessitated by the fact that the bunnies keep finding themselves in unhappier circumstances, but there's something really comforting about that expression, and the way it's repeated over and over gives it an almost mantra-like quality.

Here's a video with some images from the book:

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