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Don't stop believin'
on January 1, 2014
I’ve encountered something new and exciting at this late stage of the game. For years I’ve been reviewing picture books written for children. Working with them on almost a day-to-day basis as a children's librarian, I did not doubt that my experience helped me to separate out the wheat from the chaff (so to speak). Then I had my own kiddo and together we were able to plumb the depths of the board book genre. Now the small child has grown quite fond of picture books, so together we’ve explored books that would be within her age range and those that are, perhaps, a tiny bit of a stretch. I will tell you right now that “Journey” by Aaron Becker is not intended for the toddler crowd. Not necessarily. With its fine attention to detail and jaw-dropping storyline, Becker has created a modern day classic in the midst of an overpopulated genre. That said, do not hesitate to introduce this book to any and all kiddos you have at hand. Give it to your teenagers. Give it to your ankle biters. The more people that sit down and take in the pages of the book, the better off the whole of humanity will be. For my part, I’m just delighted that repeated one-on-one readings of books like this one yield all sorts of additional information and details that will help my reviewing. There’s a lot to be said for this whole parenting thing, eh?
A girl is bored. Bored bored bored bored bored. With her mom cooking and yakking on the phone, her dad glued to his computer and her older sister consumed by some kind of electronic handheld device, there’s no one to play with. But when the girl’s cat reveals itself to have been sitting on a bright red writing implement (is it a marker, a crayon, or chalk?), she knows immediately what to do. A door is drawn on the wall of her room and passing through it instantly yields a glorious lantern lit world, replete with tall green trees and a meandering stream. When the girl draws a boat with which to explore the stream she is drawn into a massive water-driven city full of friendly residents, canals, and locks. An accidental slip over the side causes her to draw a hot air balloon and all is well until she spots a beautiful purple bird. Pursued by a relentless villain, the creature is caught and caged. Our heroine attempts a daring rescue but is caught herself in the attempt. Fortunately, things turn out well in the end and she finds that maybe in her humdrum drab little world at home there’s someone else there willing to share an adventure or two.
Seems this book can’t get a review without someone comparing it to “Harold and the Purple Crayon”. That’s fair, I suppose. After all, it’s about a kid creating solutions to the world around them with the help of a brightly colored . . . I guess I’ll call it a crayon, though at no point does it ever establish itself as one thing or another. And there’s even a falling-and-drawing-a-hot-air-balloon sequence that is straight up Harold, no question. That said, all other similarities to Harold stop right there. You see, I’ve always personally been a bit creeped out by Harold. Sure, I recognize the brilliance in the simple writing and the art is a dream to the eye in its minimalism. Yet there was always something cold and lonely to the Harold books. Nothing he draws ever moves. He’s creating his own reality, but everything he encounters originally sprouted from his own crayon. “Journey” is vastly different. Here our heroine meets new people, some of whom are friendly and some are not. She interacts with them. Instead of being limited to the world of her crayon, her crayon instead introduces her to whole new worlds she would never have seen otherwise. So while Harold exists in the cold white plain pages of a book, destined to provide only one color for variety, this girl uses her one color to explore other colors and other worlds and other people and cultures. There’s a metaphor just ah-brewing here, you know it, but I’ll leave it to you to extend it to its natural end.
Not afraid of architecture is Mr. Becker. Nope. Not a jot afraid. When you turn the pages of the book and see the castle-like city for the first time with its golden domes and green parasol-carrying residents, it’s a jaw-dropper. Honestly awe-inspiring. I may have to credit it with my daughter’s current obsession now with castles. The first person it made me think of, actually, was David Macaulay. Macaulay’s books featuring expansive architecture are the closest kin to what Becker is doing here. But unlike Macaulay, Becker does not seem to sport any actual degrees in architecture. He’s a trained artist, and clearly a well-trained one, but if he excels in this area it is due to his talent rather than his experience. I then showed this book to my husband and he looked at it with interest. “It has a lot of similarities to ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’,” he pointed out. Boy howdy, I’m glad he pointed that out. It most certainly does! I don’t know how many of you have taken the time to studiously watch the Nickelodeon hit animated television show, but in truth there’s a lot of “Avatar” to be found here. From the city with the waterways and locks to the boats in the sky to even the sensation of flying over unfamiliar cities and lands, at the very least this makes a darned good companion to “Avatar”, if not an outright introduction to it.
I don’t know how many authors and illustrators know this, but in my experience there are a lot of teachers out there who send their students into libraries to ask for wordless picture books. Often these are used for writing exercises where the kids write the plot of the books, but once in a while you’d get a creative soul who understands that visual storytelling is the great unifier. Take a kid from another country that has recently immigrated, hand them a wordless book, and watch as they find (much to their own relief) that they are able to “read” the text. This goes for reluctant readers and kids that are reading below their grade levels. It’s also great for very young readers who cannot yet read words but delight in telling stories. Becker easily could have added text to this book. It wouldn’t have been pretty, but it could have happened. Instead, he and his editor and even his publisher took a chance and let the images and the storytelling do the talking. Sometimes you have to shut your trap to truly hear what a book has to say.
I’ll confess a small quibble I had at one point involving the villain. There’s not a ton of diversity in this book, and I do prefer titles that aren’t afraid to show folks from a variety of different races. That’s why I was a bit unnerved at first by the baddie. Dressed in full regalia worthy of a villain, with his Fu Manchu moustache and samurai dress, there’s something distinctly Asian about him. This struck me as a bit unfortunate, but upon closer examination I realized that I couldn’t tell the race of the girl either. And for that matter, it’s not like Becker is pinpointing a single nation or ethnicity as his big bad. There appear to be Egyptian decals on some of his architecture. His house for the bird has a somewhat pagoda look to it. Maybe I’m justifying everything, but it seems to me that Becker was trying more than anything else to have a bad guy who was easy to spot (note the golden helmet) and that looked different from the residents of the water-based city. Becker himself spent time in Japan, I believe, so it’s not out of the question that his art style might be affected, but I hardly think he’s guilty of playing on stereotypes.
There is a very different argument against this book that I should address, however. I was at a nice little shindig the other day, talking with librarians about picture books we think should win big awards and the subject of “Journey” came up. “Oh,” said a woman to me, “I love it, but one of my librarians had a real problem with the gun.” I blinked a little and then searched my memory banks. The gun? I had no idea the book had a gun. Well, you can bet I ran back home and looked the book over cover to cover. After some work I finally located the alleged “gun”. It’s tricky, but I think this is what the woman meant. There is a scene in the book where the bad guy is seen from a distance, directing his two men to hand the captured purple bird in a cage. He is pointing at them, but the way Becker drew the image the hand takes on the shape of, yes, a teeny tiny gun. This is clearly a quirk of the art. Look on a previous page and you can see the villain doing the same hand movement in his little airship, just with his fingers (some folks think his hand is a gun as well, but if you look you'll see that the colors of said "gun" are the same as his arm, suggesting that this is just a very insistent pointer finger). That same pointing movement is replicated on the next page, but because of an extra bump of his hand, the hand itself looks somewhat gun like. Of course, it would make NO sense for it to even be a gun. The baddie is just directing his men. He’s not holding them up at gunpoint. More to the point, if this guy was to carry a gun, a typical handgun wouldn't make a lick of sense. He's sport a blunderbuss or something that fits in with the environment around him. Plus, why would he be waving a gun at a bird he just wants to capture and cage? This is just a quirk of an image. A person reads into it what they themselves want to see. If you want to see a gun, you'll see a gun, but trust me when I say it's only going to be wishful thinking on your part.
Usually when we talk about stunning wordless picture books we talk about artist David Wiesner. With his three gold Caldecott medals and who knows how many awards to his name, it’s nice when someone else can also give us a glimpse into whole new worlds. Becker’s debut isn’t afraid to go epic on his first turn around the block. Packed with details, the book rewards readings and rereadings. It’s a true original, though it certainly harkens back to classic picture books of yore. I don’t get to use this word very often when I’m talking about books for young children but I’m going to dust it off and use it now: Beautiful. There’s no other way to describe “Journey”. Take your own today.
For ages 2 and up.