Two White Rabbits (2015) by Jairo Buitrago

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 21.1.

Two White Rabbits

Illustrated by Rafael Yockteng

Buitrago - RabbitsThis review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume xxx

“The little girl in this story is travelling with her father, but she doesn’t know where they are going,” begins the dust-jacket description. As a premise, it is “moving and timely,” but the story we are given mostly confuses. A child reader, encountering the first few pages, will view it as a counting book. “When we travel, I count what I see…” are the first words the narrator gives us. The next 6 page-spreads are about counting: animals, birds, “people who live by the tracks,” the clouds… But as a counting book, it is disappointing. First, the narrator counts the animals in the barnyard: four hens, five cows, and the dog who travels with them, but she misses the seven chicks watched over by the hens; second, there are 42 birds in the sky, not the 50 she claims to count. Small things, perhaps, but the sort of detail young readers often grab on to and would find frustrating.

The destination-less travel, combined with the expressive illustrations of migrant workers, creates a powerful sense of unease (obviously intentional) and manages to synthesize very successfully the child’s experience of trust in her father with the insecurity of their flight. The soldiers that appear in both the text and illustrations, though, bring up questions that would perhaps be better to have answered. With neither a “whither” nor a (perhaps more important) “why” to the journey, there is too great a sense of troubling confusion. The father and daughter spend some time with a boy and his grandmother, who give the girl two white rabbits along with pitying glances as they leave. So in the end, the girl has “two white rabbits” to count… and we are no closer to knowing anything about their story.

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One Hungry Heron (2014), by Carolyn Beck and Karen Patkau

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 20.3.

Beck - HeronI’ve always been particularly fond of herons, especially in art, so One Hungry Heron immediately appealed. The beauty of Karen Patkau’s rich illustrations of pond life springs out of the pages, the main element of the book’s engaging graphic layout. Creatures from the drawings on the right creep, swim, slither into the white-space where Carolyn Beck’s simple poem counts up from one hungry heron to ten tiny turtles… only to quickly slide back down through the numbers as raindrops on the water send the creatures to seek cover. In the upper left corner of each page spread, too, Patkau has decorated the brightly coloured numbers with small pictures of the pond’s creatures, complementing the larger pictures on the right.

The movement in the structure of the poem is paralleled by the onomatopœia: “dragonflies / hover and dip. / Whiz! Pause! Whiz! / Zoom! Zoom! Zip!” The images and sounds together create a rolling, fluid experience for the young reader, interrupted only by the occasional stilted syntax of some of the verses or uneven meter of the poetry. It is unfortunate when such a beautiful little book is marred by imperfect poetics; One Hungry Heron comes so close to being a spectacular book. Certainly, it is still beautiful, but the overall reading (listening…) experience will be lessened by the uneven meter and imperfect rhyme scheme.

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (1984), by Chris Van Allsburg

Van Allsburg - HarrisI was chatting with my children’s high-school librarian when the cover of this picture book caught my attention. I’ve read a few of Chris Van Allsburg’s books, and have to say have been, well… disturbed a bit by them. My squeamishness: I understand completely why he is popular, and I find his illustrations entrancing, if the narratives a bit troubling. This one looked a bit different, though: the pages were almost bereft of story. Intentionally and for good reason, it turns out.

The premise of the book is that an author/illustrator, Harris Burdick, had brought 14 sketches to show a publisher, Peter Wenders. He claimed to have a story to go with each one; the pictures were each captioned, but nothing more. Burdick left, never to return. Wenders waited for years for the mysterious Harris Burdick to return, but to no avail… “His disappearance is not the only mystery left behind,” Allsburg tells us in his introduction: “What were the stories that went with these drawings?” And so the collection was published: images and captions are all that is provided; the rest comes from the imaginations of the children who encounter the bizarre images of Harris Burdick.

The images are many of them surreal, and the captions suitably suggestive: “He threw with all his might, but the stone came skipping back”; “He had warned her about the book. Now it was too late”; “It all began when someone left the window open”… But words alone can not sufficiently describe the magic of Allsburg’s creation: the eerie images illuminate the captions rather than the other way around, and the reader’s mind immediately begins to churn, little bits of story roiling together like flotsam in Rushdie’s Sea of Stories, fished from the waters to form cohesive narratives… I really wish I taught an elementary school Language Arts class; I would love to see the marvellous tales that would come of letting a classroom of children free with this book.

Van Allsburg - Burdick page SM

Bosley Sees the World (2012), by Tim Johnson

Bosley is quite the adorable little bear.  The illustration of his world and his bearness all work together to present a very friendly, yet vibrant aesthetic, a good choice on the part of author/illustrator Tim Johnson, who tells the story of an adventurous young bear out to discover his world. Young Bosley Bear, fascinated by his world, steps out of his comfort zone to explore what lies beyond his cave, beyond his forest. What lies there is another challenge: a mountain taller than any of the trees he has climbed. From the top of the mountain, Bosley looks down, back through the forest to his cave, and decides to return to the safety of his home.

The repetitive language (“He stretched his front paws. He stretched his back paws.”) serves multiple purposes: it creates an effective sense of rhythm in the narrative; it reinforces the learning of phonics and written word; and it exposes cross-language learners to a new vocabulary: for Johnson’s book is a dual-language text, with English and an alternate language (in the case of the edition I read: Spanish) on one page. The pattern of repetition could be more carefully use to this advantage; there is nothing wrong with Johnson’s prose, except that it brings memories of other, more successful books to mind too readily (although it is unfair to expect everyone to be Maurice Sendak). Similarly, the actual way that the text is superimposed over the delightful images impedes on the enjoyment of the reading experience; a number of other aesthetic options would create a blending of text and image that is less visually jarring. The final criticism of the text lies more deeply in the story. An easy alteration would render the story more meaningful: Bosley embarks on his quest for adventure, leaves his cave, traverses the forest, climbs a mountain, looks back at the great world he is a part of, and … nothing:

“That will have to wait until another day.
It’s too big for me now.”
And Bosley walked back to his tiny cave.

… He curled up in his little bed and dreamed about the big world.
He would explore it all someday.
He knew it.

The End.”

The narrative structure is fine, but there needs be a stronger sense of epiphany in Bosley’s mountain-top realization. Perhaps I am being too harsh, but at the end of a picture book, as much as a novel, we like a sense of emotional accomplishment, not only effective dénouement and closure.  This slight deficiency prevents Bosley Sees the World from rising into the higher echelons of children’s picture books; it is nonetheless a delightful story with much—notably the dual-language format—to recommend it.

When I read Bosley Sees the World , it was provided by the author in .pdf format; it has, however, recently been made available at amazon.com.