Wednesday, July 8, 2009

You Can't Take a Balloon Into the Metropolitan Museum

Wordless picture books have a different kind of energy than other books. There is something magical about relying entirely on images to grasp the story. I am more of a writer than an illustrator but books like You Can't Take a Balloon Into the Metropolitan Museum, reminds me how pictures can be worth a thousand words. 

The book, designed and illustrated by Jacqueline Preiss Weitzman and Robin Preiss Glasser, is a visual masterpiece. The story follows a little girl's visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a chase through the city of New York for a missing balloon. As the girl and her grandmother attempt to enter the museum with a yellow balloon, a security guard asks her to leave it outside. The girl is hesitant but accepts when the guard promises to watch it for her. The girl is introduced to the greatest art treasures the museum has to offer. The balloon escapes and the guard must chase it throughout the city with the help of various passersby. 

There are two different paces in this book. The story of the girl and her grandmother is quiet, slow as they move between the works of art. The story of the guard and balloon is a madcap rush through the city, as he gathers helpers from each of the scenes he enters. Where the book is strongest is where these paces meet up in each of the different works of art. As the girl is looking at one of Degas' ballet dancers, the guard is running through an ice skating rink of pirouetting skaters. When the girl is looking at Washington Crossing the Delaware, the guard and his group of helpers is taking a small boat across the pond in Central Park. As the girl points out Seurat's Invitation to the Sideshow (a painting of musicians) the guard runs smack dab into a troupe of practicing musicians. These coincidences are well planned and children will enjoy spotting the similarities. 

The book presents artwork in a fun way for kids. The artwork is copied directly into the book and the authors do not attempt to recreate them, which I feel is a strength of the book. I have seen illustrators attempt to recreate traditional works of art with mixed results. The fact that the artwork stands out so well from the rest of the illustration make it simpler for children (and adults alike) to spot the museum pieces. This is a fun book with a message. Children can see these great works, which are referenced in the back, while enjoying the slapstick race of the guard. The happy ending is coincidental but the book is well planned. It is both a serious and a silly book at the same time. 

I was reminded of Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith's art based book called Seen Art?. They too used art to tell a clever story. These books would work well together since You Can't Take a Balloon... covers traditional and antique art (with the exception of the Jackson Pollack) and Seen Art? is very much about modern art. Both have separate stories going on that drives the characters from artwork to artwork. And both are just as much fun. While these books are not substitutes for actually visiting the museums, these books whet children's appetites for art and give a view of the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. Laugh and enjoy the stories, but the art lesson cannot be denied. 

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