Sunday, February 7, 2010

Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse

The first time I ever really recognized a children’s book illustration as art was when looking at Leo Lionni’s work. Before that, I had always loved the images in my books but never really seen the full beauty of them. Never seen them as anything more than just illustrations. But Lionni’s collage work was and still is some of the more inventive and beautiful illustrations out there. I am constantly drawn into the images to see the textures and types of papers that he uses in his artwork. From a felt mouse to a wallpaper background, there is a variety of colors and textures that combine beautifully. Lionni is a master of taking torn scraps and making memorable scenes. The Caldecott honor book, Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse is a perfect example of these fantastic spreads.

Alexander is a regular mouse. He scrounges for food and lives in a hole in the wall. The people in the house chase him away every time they see him and he is sad that no one seems to love him. Then he meets Willy, a wind-up mouse who is a favorite toy of the girl in the house. She takes Willy everywhere and loves him. Alexander wants to be a wind-up mouse and be loved too. One day Willy tells him of a magic lizard that can turn one creature into another. The lizard tells Alexander he will need a purple pebble to work the magic. When he can’t find the pebble, he returns to Willy who has been thrown into a box. The family is getting rid of some toys including the wind-up mouse. Just then, Alexander finds the pebble. He rushes to the lizard and asks to change Willy into a real mouse. When he goes to find the box, it is empty. Alexander is crestfallen until he returns home and finds a familiar friend in his hole in the wall.

The story, like a Prince and the Pauper tale, is based on the idea of wanting to be something you are not. Like many of the mouse books I’ve read, Alexander is tired of being hated. He wants to be loved. And although Willy cannot move without being wound, Alexander sees that a wind-up mouse’s life would offer him love. But like all toys, children lose interest in them. Suddenly Willy’s life doesn’t seem so grand. Alexander sacrifices his own interests to help a friend. This is a sweet story about friendship but also about being happy with what you have. Lionni keeps the story and wording pretty simple, but the concepts are much deeper. I have to wonder how much of that I gathered when reading it as a child.

What I remember from my childhood was the images. I remember the matryoshka doll on the cover made from different types of wallpaper. I remember the two mice, one with its smooth gray finish and the other made from felt. I remember the night scene when Alexander makes the wish to change his friend into a real mouse. The sky is covered with tissue paper leaves and the strange gravel path. When I found the book for purchase, these were the things that I flipped to immediately. I didn’t remember the story, but I knew the images. I've stated many times before how much I love collage work for illustration. Successfully done collage can be far more interesting to me than painting. And Lionni is an artist. He takes various materials and creates images that can stay with me from my early childhood until adulthood. They remind me that illustration work doesn’t have to be painted. Like Ezra Jack Keats, Eric Carle, Lois Ehlert, and others, Lionni uses the materials at hand to bring some of the most memorable and lovable characters to life.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Curious Garden

I’ve wanted to pick up Peter Brown’s book The Curious Garden for quite a while now. From everything I had heard it had all the things I love: beautiful illustrations, a sweet story, and an environmental message that I can stand behind. So when I got a Barnes and Noble gift card for Christmas, I knew what I was going to buy. The book was far more beautiful than I was expecting, and much more poignant.

The story follows a little boy named Liam who lives in a grey city. Most of the people in town never leave their houses and the city is filled with concrete and buildings. But Liam likes to explore. And one day he discovers a small untidy garden up on an abandoned elevated railway platform. Liam tends the little garden and it begins to spread along the railway platform. When winter comes, the garden falls dormant and Liam prepares for the spring. This time he is prepared with new tools and knowledge. The garden flourishes under his care and begins to spread again. It is no longer content to be just on the railway platform. Now it spreads throughout the city. And as the garden spreads, the number of gardeners increases. Suddenly the city is filled with gardens and gardeners. All because of one little boy tending an untidy garden.

Like The Gardener by Sarah Stewart and David Small, Peter Brown has created a fantastic book about how just a little dirt and seeds can bring happiness to people. I’m a huge believer that we need green things to be happy. And this book just goes to show how those green spaces can transform a city. At the beginning, the city is filled with browns and greys and smoke. And the city appears deserted. No one is outdoors except Liam. As the book continues we see more and more colors creeping in. Browns are replaced with greens and even the sky turns from grey to blue. But the biggest change is the people. By the end of the book everyone is outdoors. Neighbors are getting to know neighbors. This city has come alive in many ways. The text is simple and pretty sparse. Brown lets his illustrations tell most of the story. There are many pages that have no words at all, just pictures. And what pictures they are.

Peter Brown’s acrylic and gouache images are filled with rounded shapes, beautiful colors, and a cuteness all their own. Even from the beginning there is a sweetness to all his images that just becomes more beautiful and magical as the book goes on. Everything has a softness to it, possibly from the fact that many of the edges of things are blurred. Like his use of rounded figures and plants, the blurring makes the images look safer and sweeter. Liam is adorable with his shock of red hair and slightly large head. He is a warm character and I instantly liked him (perhaps it was his constantly sweet smile). The garden appears to have a life of its own. The book talks about the garden being restless and wanting to explore. It becomes an additional character in the book. Brown captures the spread of the plants very well. There are some beautiful full page illustrations that show the old train tracks covered in plants. I found it interesting to see what the old buildings became as the plants grew up and around them.

I have to admit that I originally wanted to find the book because of its cover. A beautiful setting, a young boy, and a book, what more is there to love? But once I got into the story I found that it was more than just a simple story about a young boy tending a garden. The mix of cute, simple, and rounded images will make any child want to read and reread this book. They will enjoy even the pages without words because of the beautiful illustrations. But although the story and the images may be cute and simple but there is a message there that is very powerful. It is a story about why we need green things. About the power that living things have. I would not be surprised to see this book recommended by many environmental organizations. This is a wonderful book and I would recommend it to everyone.