As a parent, the most magical part of reading an illustrated book to a child is The Point: that moment when your kiddo’s index finger flies out towards the illustration and she blurts out, “Look, there it is, it’s right there!” as she locates a drawing of the object or character you just read about. As a teacher, that moment has an extra layer of meaning – it’s when a child’s brain is firing on all cylinders, forming all manner of visual and auditory cross connections that might well remain with them a life long. And as a lover of the medium of children’s illustrated literature, it’s a sure sign that an illustrator and an author are on the same page, working in exquisite symmetry to bring the color of the brush to the weight of the spoken word.
When the same person is both artist and author, that synchronicity is all but expected – our family copies of Dr. Seuss and The Berenstain Bears practically have holes in them from all the pointing fingers that have been thrust in their direction – but when those roles are played by two separate people, the process has a potential to break down. The author has to make sure that they block their text for each page so as to avoid contradictory images and gestures that an artist would struggle to portray in one illustration, just as the artist has to intelligently and creatively find the heart of each passage and render it in sympathy with the words. It’s tricky, but when it’s done right, it’s magic.
Which brings us to two new children’s books published by Sleeping Bear Press, who last year came out with one of my top five favorite children’s books ever, Out of School and Into Nature: The Anna Comstock Story. Both of these new books have compelling stories at their hearts based around extraordinary people who did inspiring things. Both are engagingly written, and feature classic, charming art that pulls kids from page to page. By the numbers, they should captivate in about equal measure. And yet, purely by virtue of attention shown to the synchronization of art and word, one of them exceeds the sums of its talents while the other is almost always at odds with itself as two great talents consistently create past, instead of with, each other.
Aim for the Skies: Jerrie Mock and Joan Merriam Smith’s Race to Complete Amelia Earhart’s Quest has a tall order before it – to make engaging a weeks’ long air race between two women who are attempting to circumnavigate the globe as an homage to Amelia Earhart. It sounds easy – what’s objectively cooler than a 1960s air race across the globe – but from an illustrator’s point of view it’s quite tricky as, fundamentally, what you have to draw is a lot of People Sitting in Cockpits and Various Perspectives of Planes in the Air. That could get repetitive quickly, but Bissonette and Ettlinger cleverly work around that by showing all the problems and locales Mock and Smith encountered along their respective routes as they demonstrate not only tough as nails grit and aeronautical/mechanical prowess, but discover a world far greater and more challenging than they had imagined possible. It’s a story about people expanding the borders of their lives as much as it is about an airplane race, and that combination of human interest, exotic locales, and Who Will Win Suspense is a winner. Bissonette hits a range that runs from triumphant to whimsically retrospective, and her portrayal of Smith’s determination to finish her flight even after learning that Mock won the race, combined with Ettlinger’s haunting watercolors, is a poignant and beautiful moment.
Aim for the Skies is a story in aviation history that absolutely should be told, and it has been fortunate enough to be placed in the hands of two people who are able to balance metal and heart just precisely right so as to let the suspense of the race provide a propulsive force to the very human story they are telling, instead of smothering the characters beneath it.
Nature’s Friend’s cover sets up an expectation for a beautiful story rendered with understated and lovely understanding. As drawn by Ewen, you love Gwen Frostic before you’ve even read a word about her. Frostic was a nature artist from Michigan whose linocut stationery formed the basis of a massively successful business that always kept nature advocacy as its central principle. Like Mock and Smith, she’s a historical figure who we become better by knowing, and I was excited to learn about her. McDivitt’s prose captures her struggle with overcoming weakness in her hands, her isolation from her classmates, and her eventual rise to become one of Michigan’s most beloved nature artists with affection and compassion, while Ewen’s art is consistently warm and inviting.
However, the two halves don’t quite meet in the middle. There are several examples of pages where McDivitt describes different actions in different locations, leaving Ewen with the difficult task of selecting which one to focus on, with predictably difficult to parse results. One page describes Gwen hopping on a bus to get art materials, getting those art materials, and then pounding away at copper in the basement to form clocks and sundials. Bus, shop, basement art studio – which do you choose to draw? Given that this is a story of an artist, you’d think the basement art studio, but Ewen opted instead for the bus, perhaps because the previous page featured her at work in an art school and she didn’t want to repeat location types, but it still seems a missed opportunity.
Later, a page describes Gwen walking through a downtown area, walking deep in the wetlands, and sitting quietly recording wildlife with pen and pencil, all with an emphasis on dirty hands and an ink stained dress. Again, three choices about what to illustrate, and Ewen does the best she can by tossing out the downtown idea and creating an image of Gwen standing next to some wetlands, holding a sketchpad but not drawing in it, and as clean as can be of both hands and dress. All of which adds up to less pointing from the kiddos, as they struggle to reconcile what they’ve read with what they’re seeing. Later still we get three particular references to actual Frostic artwork in the text – a red-winged blackbird, a fat toad, and golden branches emerging from snow. This is the first and only time that we see Ewen render Frostic’s art in her own style, which is odd seeing as how this is a book about an artist, but it makes the moment that much more important – our eyes dash to the next page – just how did Frostic draw a red-winged blackbird, a fat toad, and golden branches emerging from snow? We look, and we see…
A Raccoon, a white tree against a dark background, half of a deer from behind, and a bird that, granted, has some black on it, but certainly isn’t a red winged blackbird. Again, the art that’s there is great, and the words on the other page describing her art are lovely, they just happen to have nothing to do with each other, and moments of disconnect like these add up over the course of the book to leave a feeling of puzzlement where two creators of such noted gifts, telling such a neat story, might have pulled off something on the order of Out of School or Summer Birds.
In the end, these are both lovely books, and any child who is read them will gain inspiration and a better awareness of the world of adventure and beauty around them. I hope both of these teams get paired again, Bissonette and Ettlinger so that they can make another emotionally engaging and narratively gripping attempt to bottle lightning, and McDivitt and Ewen so that we can all see what might happen when both these prodigious talents pull in the same direction.