The illustrator Guy Billout works the narrow but fertile territory where clarity intersects with mystery. It's a place where the graffiti might read Rene Magritte Was Her (de Chirico, Too), but Billout's concerns are his own: his drawings (or are they paintings? or both?) often employ tricks of scale and perspective, along with large expanses of deceptively flat color, compositions that resolve in witty visual jokes while tapping deeper currents of unease. They're bright, figuratively and literally, like dreams dreamt under a noonday desert sun rather than in the usual shape-shifting murk.
Billout is perhaps best known for his long association with The Atlantic Monthly, but he also makes regular visits to the Book Review's list of each year's 10 best illustrated books for children. The Frog Who Wanted to See the Sea is his latest picture book, and it's lovely, with folk tale overtones and illustrations kids and adults can lose themselves in. (Isnt' that what we really want from a picture book- a low-tech virtual-reality experience?)
Our heroine is Alice, a little green frog who is growing restless within the confines of her small pond: Alice knew every inch of the pond's murky bottom and every hiding place amoung the reeds. She knew too, that she could swim from one side to the other with 28 kicks of her back legs. Spurred by a loquacious sea gull, Alice gets it into her head to leave home, taking only a rolled-up lily pad- great detail- to venture forth and see the ocen. A quest narrative, as they say.
The psychological hook for young children (or midlife parents) is obvious. Fortunately, Billout, whose writing is as disciplined as his artwork, doesn't drive home the point with a nail gun in the manner of, say, Katzenberg-era Disney animation. Instead his story unfold simply, with grace, nuance and high style. I particularly loved his description of Alice's first sighting of the ocean, which comes after a troubled sleep adrift on her pad: When Alice awoke the next morning, all she could see was blue. She looked in every direction for green riverbanks. In a moment of both joy and fright, she realized that she had reached the sea. Alice croaked softly. ... The only reply was a gust of wind that blew across the surface of the water. The hook here- the lostness- is again compelling, and the illustration, of Alice riding a wave that honors Billout's debt to traditional Japanese printmaking, is a thing of subtle beauty. But it's that moment of both joy and fright that rally gets me. Beyond encouraging feelings, how many children's books bother with that kind of emotional duality, let alone conflict? While Alice eventually makes it back to her pond safe, sound and as waterlogged as an amphibian would want to be, the moral of her story won't be There's no place like home. Billout understands that most of his readers, or listeners, will continue to find the wider world beguiling, as they should, and his book ends with an outward-bound coda that small children may find both unsettling and alluring- and funny. He knows exactly how to challenge them, a talent less obvious than his draftsmanship but no less remarkable. --New York Times Best Illustrated Books
About the Author
Guy Billout worked in advertising in Paris before moving to New York in 1969 and launching his career as an illustrator. His unusual and often humorous illustrations were featured regularly in The Atlantic Monthly for 24 years and continue to appear in such prominent periodicals as The New Yorker and The New York Times. He has written and illustrated eight picture books, four of which were named to The New York Times annual Ten Best Illustrated Children's Books list. This is his second Creative Editions title, after 1993's Journey. He lives with his wife Linda in Fairfield, Connecticut.