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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.
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on September 11, 2013
This is, in my opinion, an essential book for parents and non-parents alike. It is a work of literature, stunning in its artistry, poetic in its imagery, minimalism, and allusions.

What you have here is a wordless storybook. It is, I would suggest, more a work of art, a collection of linked paintings that tell a story. Our main character (nameless), seeks refuge from her disconnected life in the adventures she creates with her red crayon. Sound like a book we've all read and loved? Stay with me. She journeys, with her crayon, into a beautifully imagined world and an adventure. I really don't want to ruin the BRILLIANT (boy how I wish FB would let me italicize) twist ending, but I will say that this is so much more than an homage to HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON, it is an extension of it, a tribute to it, a joining of worlds.

I read this book with my three-and-a-half-year-old son last night and he was enthralled. In spite of the fact that there were no words, he was gripped. Why? The lack of a defined way of telling this story allowed us to tell it ourselves. Tonight, when we read it again, it will be slightly different. New words will be used to give voice to the story told through the images. Every time we read this book, it will become new. That is special.

I can't speak highly enough of this book. Even as an adult I read it and appreciate what it does. Absolutely stunning. Brilliant in every way. Please, do yourself a favor, spend the fourteen or fifteen bucks and get this. Cherish it. Because your child (or you) will read it at 3, at 5, at 10, at 16, at 30, at 80. This is a book I would, as a teacher, work into units from kindergarten through graduate school. How many books can you say that about? Incredible.
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on September 22, 2013
This wordless book will fire up the conversation among your family. Let the youngest tell the story. Let grandpa tell the story. Go crazy.

Wonderful illustrations. Set free your imagination.
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on August 6, 2013
Rarely has a book managed to distill so finely that primal sense of enchantment that characterizes the best of childhood, and which most of us eventually lose touch with, somehow. That Becker is able to recapture this enchantment using only images -- no words -- is testimony to his great power as an illustrator and storyteller. Journey is ravishing -- pure visual poetry -- and, in closing, leaves a faint, musical ache for the world it invokes. At the same time, it serves as an encouraging reminder that this world is within the reach of anyone willing to close their eyes and let their imagination wander. I salute the author. As the Times reported, this is a true 'masterwork,' and a stunning debut for an incredible talent.
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VINE VOICEon November 23, 2013
This is a beautiful book and tells a story solely with illustrations. My children and I have enjoyed other picture books without words including 'Flotsam' by David Weisner, 'Chalk' by Bill Thomson and 'The Red Book' by Barbara Lehman.

The illustrations in 'Journey' are wonderful, magical really. The story is about a girl who's bored and can't get anyone in her family to play with her. She goes to her room feeling sad but discovers a bright red crayon and decides to make her own adventure and draws a door in the wall that takes her to a beautiful forest with a winding river. She draws a boat and sails to a city made of castles where men are trying to capture an exotic bird. She bravely rescues the bird but finds herself captured and placed in a cage. The grateful bird helps her escape and together they fly to safety and back to the city where the girl lives to make a new friend.

What I like about this book is that the girl is always thinking, she's faced with some challenging situations but she's brave and clever and when she's bored she uses her imagination to enter a world where anything is possible.

A wonderful message to young children and a beautiful book that the adults will enjoy as much as the children do.
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on August 21, 2013
This is a gorgeous story, well-told through intimate detail and one's own imagination. It is delightfully refreshing to experience personal (and gifted) artwork that intellectually and spiritually surpass the two-dimensional lifeless cartoons and sassy one-liner characters that glut store shelves these days. It's clear this was a "passion project" and we get to be the richer for it.

Journey is a smart STORY that allows children space to think without interruption, a rare commodity these days. The illustrations are stunning, the journey limitless. My 4yo and I are already eager for the next lush title, and anticipate well-deserved Caldecott consideration for Becker.

A fantastic gift for the 3-8 year old dreamer in your life, and the adults who share books with him or her. This is a priceless gift of imagination and wonder.

Highly recommended by this former elementary school teacher.
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What a wonderful journey thru the imagination for a child of any age! A great adventure, wonderfully illustrated but wordless. It reminds me a bit of "Instructions" by Neil Gaiman. (This is a must get for any fantasy fan, esp if you have a child to read & show).

Altho it is wordless it is not really meant for the toddlers, more for the imaginative grade-schooler . Now, yes, you can't "read aloud' with your child, but I can see many ways of enjoying this together.

The illustrations are simply amazing and breathtaking.
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on September 20, 2013
The illustrations are beautiful and interesting and the story is imaginative. Both my two-year-old and five-year-old love it. I find picture books without words to be great for discussion and for language development for young children. Can't wait to see what the author/illustrator comes out with next.
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on July 2, 2014
(WARNING: Long and particular review from an Editor of 12 years, former teacher, literacy specialist, and mom of two.)

The story is of a city girl who is bored and lonely until she discovers a magical red marker. Using the marker, she is able to escape to magical worlds of her own design and imagination (think a mature version of Harold and the Purple Crayon or for my fellow Gen Xers, Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings). Becker's ability to create a strong visual narrative is key for young readers who use illustrations as a critical early reading tool.

The worlds that Becker has created are magnificent. They combine colorful natural environments (which are a powerful contrast with the original sepia-toned city scape) with imaginative buildings and intricate flying machines reminiscent of both Japanese animé and steampunk, two trendy fields of art at the moment.

The main character and heroine of the book exhibits courage, kindness, and imagination throughout the scenes in this story. However, Becker breaks with the tradition of having the main character rescue herself when three quarters of the way through the book at the point of climax, she must depend on the actions of another to come to her aid. It is very unusual to make the main character helpless and unable to solve her own problem. By struggling through the challenge, this is how the main character ultimately changes and grows. Stories are about solving problems and it's important for children (like readers of all ages) to see the heroine come to her own rescue.

By the denouement of the book, our main character is no longer bored and no longer lonely, having earned herself some fine new friends who seem to possess as much imagination and courage as she. A satisfying ending, IF you can overcome the fact that the heroine did not rise to the occasion to save herself, but in fact needed rescuing from her "golden tower" in the sky.

From the book jacket I was excited to learn that Aaron Becker has "lived in rural Japan and East Africa," and "backpacked through Sweden and the South Pacific". With such a broad background in cultural diversity, I can't help but wonder why all the characters in the book appear to be the same plain vanilla. I felt this was a missed opportunity, but perhaps Becker will apply his considerable talents and travels to include more diversity in a subsequent work.

Stereotypes and controversy:
The first two pages portray a busy family in which all members (except for the bored main character) are occupied. This is a scenario that many young children will identify with and probably face on a near daily basis as they seek out playmates and attention. Let me describe it for you: big sis is engrossed with her electronic device, dad is working on his office computer, while mom talks on a corded wall telephone. While cooking. In a pencil skirt.

When I saw this 1950's iconic portrayal of "mom" I must confess, my blood pressure increased. I kept turning back to the beginning of the book, thinking the setting for this book must be an earlier decade, but no, big sister is clearly on a handheld electronic device that appears to be either a cell phone or tablet. So I ask, what chance does our kind, courageous, and imaginative young heroine have in a world where her primary role model has been reduced to an antiquated stereotype and she herself is unable to solve her own problem without external rescue?

Add to this the fact that the villain is portrayed as distinctly non-white and I think more careful consideration could have been paid to these elements, especially in these modern times where the need for more accurate representations of minority groups (I'm including women in this group) is apparent. I am however, looking forward to what Aaron Becker produces next.
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on December 5, 2015
There are so many layers to this fabulous book. The art is incredible, but the story really makes it a five star book and not just a beautiful four star book. A lot of other reviewers have talked about the plot of the book, or their interpretation, so I won't do that here. I'll just say that every one of my kids saw different aspects of the story, and connected at different parts of the little girl's journey. Some pieces of the story are very clear, and some are open to interpretation, and I really loved that. It brought out long discussions about loneliness, acts of kindness, how hard it is to make friends, how easy it is to make friends, who big the world seems sometimes, and how something very small can change everything about your life.
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