The best stories move. They bring change. Knock characters out of their comfort zones.
A venue change often is how we see each other – and ourselves, too – most clearly. In sharp relief against new surroundings, the familiar stripped away. So a trip with its discomfiting ups and downs can help us to discover strengths we didn’t know we had, see the world through a new lens, or face life in a new way.
This month we look at some stories of those who venture forth. Since they happen to be picture books, we’ll look at how they’re conveyed, at least in part, in shapes, colors lines and other elements of design.
The Camping Trip by Jennifer K. Mann
Ernestine joins her cousin Samantha and Aunt Jackie on an epic camping adventure. She finds it not at all like swimming at the neighborhood pool. “There are fish in here!” she exclaims when Sam invites her to join her for a dip in the lake.
She confronts the rigors of uphill hiking, setting up a tent, and trying to sleep in a sleeping bag on the hard ground. “Is Dad awake?” she wonders. “Aunt Jackie, can I call my Dad?”
Gradually, frame by frame, Ernestine makes her peace with the rugged outdoors – even swimming with the fish in the lake. Her compassionate Aunt and patient cousin see her through the culture shock of the first outdoor camping experience of her life.
“When I wake up in the morning, the tent is warm and bright.”
Cartoon sequence panels with dialogue and thought balloons take you straight into Ernestine’s emotions and you feel everything with her. Mann alternates between Investigative close-ups (delicious little visual details that are almost a camping how-to) with two-page spreads that slow us down and help us take it all in. With Ernestine, we discover the great majestic woods, the deep, star-spangled night sky, and delicious marshmallow smores toasted a la campfire.
With clear, straightforward pencil drawings digitally collaged and painted and a great pace and story arc, The Camping Trip leaves you eager to throw your gear in the car and head out for a weekend in the wild woods.
“Camping is the great American pastime,” Fatima’s father tells her and so off the Khazi family heads to Emerald State Park. Their first picnic consists of Shami kabab and Rotis on kitchen plates that will be washed (“because paper plates are too expensive”). Putting up the family tent and getting a good fire going prove a bit challenging for Papa, but, fortunately, the sisters and Mama can step in. Everyone has a great time. For Fatima, who unlike her brainy older sister does not feel at home in school, camping proves a fun revelation. She emerges feeling more competent and braver, too, “like a superhero!” she reveals to her classmates at show-and-tell.
Stevie Lewis’s lushly warm illustrations are so different from Jenn Mann’s spindly, almost minimalist cartoons in The Camping Trip. The colors and textures are a feast, reflecting her background as an animation artist for Dreamworks. But both styles – Mann’s and Lewis’s immerse us thoroughly in the vivid sensations and emotions of a campout. The characters in both stories become so dear. By the end, we feel we know them so well.
I See You See by Richard Jackson, Illustrated by Patrice Barton
Time to walk the pup, and so the excursion begins – on the ground through the neighborhood and in the unfettered imagination of Jonah.
The adorable brother-sister team of Jonah and Maisie and their chubby dog Tink are joyously rendered by Barton in digital paint and collage.
The pages abound with gesture – not only in the characters’ figures but in backgrounds. The children’s imagined dinosaurs in the sky (on stilts), willow frond bell ropes, dandelion ‘goldfish’ and other impossible set pieces remind us how the world is all in the eye of the beholder.
Barton and longtime Atheneum editor Jackson give us a trip that celebrates play, figurative language, and the friendship between siblings.
The Raft by Jim LaMarche
Nicky doesn’t know he’ll be going places on the raft that mysteriously bumps against the little boat dock he fishes from.
But soon enough, with a nudge from his artist/grandmother, Nicky finds himself on a voyage of discovery. The river and its teeming wildlife beckon, as does the powerful impulse to sketch all these gorgeous creatures of land and water.
He draws draw them right on the deck of the raft, as his grandmother seems to have done before him.
She’s hosting him for the summer in the remote woodland home where she herself grew up.
Otters, foxes, turtles, cranes invite themselves to Nicky’s craft as if they’ve always belonged there. The story’s action high point is when Nicky rescues a fawn who’s stuck fast in the riverbank mud.
La Marche’s triumphantly glowing pastel pictures impart the magic of personal memory. He based his story on a series of true events from his childhood, which he says led to his love of drawing and the natural world. The full spreads shimmer with the sunlight on the water and the spirits of animals who make their homes on the river.
On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne, illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky
What a challenge for an illustrator – help young readers navigate the intellectual journey of Albert Einstein in forging a new understanding of the physical universe. Berne’s prose propels this biography, as Radunsky’s images flit between sophisticated editorial cartoons and children’s scribbles. The style evokes the graphic work of Ben Shahn and Marc Chagall.
Radunksy used the questions and “thought experiments” that preoccupied Einstein since childhood for visual subject matter. We follow along as Einstein imagines, wonders, and eventually figures out the invisible forces of atoms, light, magnetism, and gravity.
The book’s final piece of art is a flurry of question marks.
“But still, Albert left us many big questions. Questions that scientists are still working on today…that someday YOU may answer.”
We’re Going Places in our Deep Dive on Wednesday, June 30. Our exercise will be a re-imagined watercolor from the Peruvian folktale, Moon Rope. It was popularized by Lois Ehlert’s beloved retelling and visual interpretation above.
We’ll try a different illustration for the story. Already a Deep Diver? Look for the line sketch in our shared folder sometime this week.
New to Deep Dives? We tackle a painting each month in 70-minute Zoom sessions and follow-up videos. Come explore with us as we take our watercolors from a rough pencil sketch to the final art stage.