Picture Books as Performance

May 19, 2022 § Leave a comment

I recently tuned into the podcast Picturebooking, where Mac Barnett was being interviewed by host Nick Patton. It was fortuitous timing, because earlier that day I had told a friend that I thought Barnett’s newest picture book, The Great Zapfino (Ages 3-6), an almost wordless story in partnership with the great Marla Frazee, was one of the most brilliant and exciting wordless picture books I’d ever seen. But I couldn’t entirely put my finger on why.

Wordless picture books are a hard sell for parents. I could sit here all day and list the ways they build early literacy skills in young children (and I once did, here, with our family’s favorite wordless trilogy), but when it comes down to it, they just don’t seem like they’re going to be much fun to read aloud.

That’s because there’s a performative element to picture books that feels like it’s getting lost in the absence of words. On the podcast, Mac Barnett talks about how the story of a picture book cannot exist independent of its delivery. And that delivery changes every single time. No parent or teacher will read aloud the same book in quite the same way, with the same cadence or expression or energy, not to mention with the same participatory feedback from their young audience, which means that once an author unleashes a picture book into the world, it becomes a living, breathing entity. It becomes performance art.

When we adult readers are looking to entertain our listeners, we understandably look to text, both to build a story’s arc and to provide us with the dialogue to exercise our comedic or dramatic voices. In the absence of text, when we must look to pictorial representation for meaning, we’re unsure how to translate what we’re seeing aloud. We feel a bit adrift. We forget that what feels awkward to us is actually part of the charm of wordless books for children: they have to work a bit harder, participate in the read-aloud experience a bit more, but the payoff of discovery is that much sweeter.

Creating a picture book guaranteed to hold a listener’s attention no matter how it’s read is no easy feat, but Mac Barnett has proved himself infallible. Everything he touches has slam-dunk crowd appeal. (Spoiler alert: I’ve already chosen his forthcoming fall release, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, for this year’s Holiday Gift Guide!) In the case of The Great Zapfino, Mac Barnett has done something highly effective. He front loads the book with two pages of text—the words of a circus ringmaster, introducing his biggest act—before letting Marla Frazee’s spectacular illustrations tell the rest of the story. This means that right out of the gate, he satisfies our desire for a fun, over-the-top character voice, then uses that voice to invest the listener in what’s to come. Right out of the gate, we’re poised for the performance in these pages.

But The Great Zapfino isn’t just a picture book that performs well. It’s also a story about a literal performance. And not the one we think we’re getting from the book’s opening pages, either. Because the Great Zapfino is about to blow it. He’s about to throw away his big shot in a public spectacle of embarrassment. But he’s also about to rewrite his own script, cast himself in a different role, and give himself the time and permission for second chances. His performance, we come to realize, is the performance of life, and we are lucky to be along for the ride.

“Behold: the Great Zapfino!” cries the ringmaster, as the small, hunched, caped figure of Zapfino steps into the circus tent and begins to climb up, up, up the skinniest of ladders. As the ringmaster goes on, filling an entire page with his introduction, the discrepancy between his words and Zapfino’s modest manner become more and more clear.

“And now, before your very eyes, the Great Zapfino will perform the thrilling LEAP FOR LIFE. Prepare to gasp as Zapfino dives ten terrifying stories through the air, landing on a tiny trampoline! Zapfino will dodge peril and brave calamity in an impossible feet of derring-do! Watch in awe as Zapfino defies fate for your entertainment.”

Marla Frazee has always been a whiz with perspective, and she plays with each composition to draw our attention to the precariousness of the ladder, the unforgiving edge of the platform, the tiny trampoline being held below by five clowns.

Even before Zapfino turns his head directly to look at us, we suspect he’s not going to go through with it. Every child knows what it’s like to stand on the precipice of fear, the encouragement of loved ones straddling that fine line between support and suffocation. What happens next will be equal parts affirming and appealing for children.

Because Zapfino bails. When the ringmaster turns around, Zapfino is gone, better versed at disappearing acts than at defying heights. Sit with this for a minute: when was the last time a main character was allowed to opt out of bravery? Jump ship without, in this case, actually jumping? What a gratifying concept for a child to explore: rather than pushing yourself to do something uncomfortable, rather than performing purely for the sake of others’ entertainment, it might be worth the embarrassment of stepping out of the limelight completely. In this moment, Zapfino becomes the anti-hero. (Until he doesn’t.)

When we next see Zapfino, he’s hailing a taxi to the airport and boarding a plane. Destination: a seaside city, with palm trees and vacationers.

We’re squarely in Marla Frazee’s hands now, as her illustrated panels expertly move the action along towards the story’s cleverest reveal: even as Zapfino rewrites much of the script of his life, he can’t defy his fate. When Zapfino rents himself an apartment on the tenth floor, careful observers will notice the ten stories echo the height of the circus tent ladder. When he trades in his cape for the uniform of an elevator attendant, his day-to-day existence is defined, once again, by ascent and descent. Even the non-traditional format of the book—tall and skinny—is itself a nod to height. Zapfino’s fate is proving to be intricately wound up in heights.

Let’s take a moment to dwell on these elevator panels, because this is Marla Frazee at her best, conveying the passage of time and a range of emotional experiences in a single, broken-up page. Here, also, is where we fall in love with Zapfino, assuming we weren’t already on the anti-hero’s side. For the first time, he looks neither afraid nor tentative. He bends down to pet a dog and reaches up to high five a child on a dad’s shoulders. He’s inquisitive. He’s bored. He’s amused. He’s tired. He’s content.

Zapfino is not the one-act man the ringmaster had him pegged for. He’s human.

What we also learn is that Zapfino has made a life for himself. A good life. A life of hard work and sandwiches and stargazing. And more elevator panels, revealing just how varied and surprisingly rich this life is.

Still, the unresolved business of heights comes to a head when Zapfino dozes off while toasting bread. The toaster catches on fire., and the smoke quickly spreads. Marla Frazee could have had any number of reasons for choosing a grayscale palette for the book—it enhances the cinematic quality of the story, for one, as well as creates a blank slate for possibility—but on a purely tactical level, it allows her to illustrate a fire without terrifying her young reader.

Once again, Zapfino finds himself on a ledge, ten stories high, looking down at a tiny trampoline held by five figures. And we understand that his Second Chance has arrived.

Zapfino doesn’t just jump to save his life. He savors every moment in the air—and more. I won’t show you the two illustrations that follow, but I promise you the applause is worth the wait. It always is.


Have you enjoyed this post? Make sure you don’t miss others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox 3-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I’m active most days, posting reviews and updates on what my kids are reading, or Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) and Twitter (@thebookmommy).

Gifted by Beach Lane, an imprint of Simon Schuster. All opinions are my own. My links (i this case, SIGNED COPIES!) support the beautiful indie, Old Town Books, where I am the buyer for the children’s section!

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