Friends Make Everything Better (Two Picks for Valentine’s Day)
February 10, 2014 § 2 Comments
My family spent this past weekend holed up in the snowy hills of West Virginia with three other families. Once we adults began to block out the chatter and squeals of nine (mostly) happy children running circles around us, we were able to entertain some blissful grown-up time. And as I watched my children mature and transform across three full days of kid-on-kid time, I found myself feeling immensely grateful for friendships of both the tall and short kind. In this winter that has gone on too long, it is our friends that have put smiles on our faces, ideas in our head, and glasses of wine in our (adult) hands.
With Valentine’s Day shortly upon us, I’ve once again chosen a bit of a non-traditional path for my children’s gifts (and, gasp, I’ve even cheated and given the gifts early!). These two new picture books—both by first time author-illustrators—rise above the saccharine-sweet-mushy-gushy-dime-a-dozen stories out there by celebrating friendship in unique, quirky, and unforgettable ways. In Rosy Lamb’s Paul Meets Bernadette (Ages 4-7), we are reminded of how good friends can change the way we see the world. Paul is a goldfish in a round glass bowl. His life literally consists of “going around in circles. He made big circles and little circles. He circled from left to right. And from right to left.” But his worldview forever changes when “one day, Bernadette dropped in” and challenges Paul: “Haven’t you ever noticed that there’s a whole world out there?” With the flamboyant new goldfish as his guide, Paul begins to take notice of objects outside his bowl: a banana (which Bernadette announces is a boat), a green alarm clock (“a cactus!”), and a pair of speckled reading glasses (“a lunetta butterfly!”). “‘How lovely she is,’ thinks Paul.”
Paul is not the only one who starts seeing things differently: as readers, our children’s own perspective is challenged here as well. Lamb’s artwork is rendered entirely in oil paint, the three-dimensional brush strokes visible at every turn. Bound in a distinctive 7” by 7” format, the book presents like a mini art gallery, its impressionistic paintings begging to be interpreted. My kids go nuts for books about “mistaken identities,” things that are obviously one thing but get misconstrued as something else (see my post on Peter Brown’s art of deception in Creepy Carrots). In Lamb’s book, we might expect her to paint the objects outside the bowl as they are seen (and misconstrued) in the eyes of the goldfish—and indeed, this is the case for the first one, the banana boat. But the rest of the time, the scenes are drawn from outside the tank, in their true forms, so that our children must use their imagination to see how, for example, a blue-and-white ceramic tea pot could look like an elephant. This technique spurred no shortage of giggles and banter from my kids, not unlike the back-and-forth between the two fish themselves. My children: “The spout is like the elephant’s trunk!” “No, the handle looks like the trunk!” “No, the handle is the elephant’s ear!” The fish: “‘Is she a dangerous elephant?’ asks Paul. ‘She is not too dangerous,’ Bernadette tells Paul. ‘But you must not disturb her when she is feeding her babies.’”
Those of us who are not as fortunate as Paul to have a new friend “drop in” must seek out the joy of companionship—and this can take both courage and ingenuity. In Andrew Prahin’s Brimsby’s Hats (Ages 4-8), Brimsby, a hat maker by trade, already knows what it is like to have a best friend: someone with whom he shares his creations over tea, and “together, they have the most wonderful conversations.” But when the friend follows his dream to become a sea captain and sails away, Brimsby is left to pass the months away alone in his quiet cottage in the country, without so much as a single visitor. Then one day, while out in a blizzard, he come across a tree full of birds. In an attempt to make the birds’ acquaintance, Brimsby’s initial “Hello” is ignored: the birds are too busy shoveling snow out of their nests and “keeping the cold wind from blowing out their fires” (yes, these are chimney-sporting nests). Never one to give up and confident in himself as friend-worthy, our hat maker returns to his cottage, where he diligently works to turns hats into Perfect Little Bird Houses, complete with doors that close up tight and cut-outs for chimneys. Free of their toils, the birds turn their attention to Brimsby, striking up conversations about hats, shovels, and “whether lemon cookies taste better than worms”—and a new friendship is born.
If Rosy Lamb’s book looks like something you’d find in the National Gallery of Art, then Prahin’s equally stunning digitally-rendered artwork will have you feeling like you just stumbled upon some ultra-hip animation studio in London. The unusual color scheme of olive green, pink, teal, and slate grey brilliantly contrasts Prahin’s pervasive use of white for the snow (once again, we behold the perfection of picture book snow). Prahin’s deceptively simple illustrations speak volumes: the passage of time, for example, is communicated by a progressively melting candle in one place and by the seasonal transformations outside the window in another. My children’s favorite spread is one in which we get a kind of x-ray look into the interiors of the birds’ new hat-houses, each one complete with its own special wallpaper and each one home to a most snug and contented little bird. Friendship leaves none of us unchanged. And thank goodness for that. Happy Valentine’s Day!