Those of us who love picture books know that art can be magic. Caldecott Medalist Mordicai Gerstein’s newest picture book, a primer of sorts on the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave drawings in southern France, explores this notion in more ways than one, and it’s a thought-provoking picture book for budding and long-time art-lovers alike.
Gerstein opens The First Drawing, which he both wrote and illustrated, with a note about how the oldest drawings ever discovered were made more than 30,000 years ago in a cave in southern France. “In that same cave,” he writes, “is the footprint of an eight-year-old child. Alongside it, the footprint of a wolf.” Merging two worlds and time periods here, Gerstein depicts a contemporary young boy and his dog standing next to a cave wall with a drawing of a woolly mammoth. On the next spread, the copyright and title page, Gerstein extends the story even further by showing the same 21st-century boy and his pet staring at an elephant at the zoo. The boy, crayons in his pocket, then pins a blank piece of paper to a wall.
Yes, all of that, even before page one.
And on that first page, it’s as if Gerstein extends his hands to child readers, using a very immediate, second-person, present tense voice. After asking readers to imagine that they existed “before the invention of drawing”—here the boy is suddenly in more primitive clothes, and his sidekick is now a wolf—Gerstein then lays out the scenario:
“You live in a cave with your parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunt, many cousins, and your wolf, Shadow. It’s a big cave.”
Gerstein asks child readers to step into the boy’s shoes (still speaking directly to readers, mind you), further explaining that you love to watch animals and see them in the clouds, in the shapes of the stones you collect for spearheads and knives, and in the firelight that flickers in the cave and leaves shadows on the cave walls. Unfortunately, no other family members see quite the way you do. In fact, they get annoyed and frustrated with you. No matter how hard you try, they aren’t seeing what you see in your mind’s eye.
Not until, that is, the night when you try to describe to your family the awe-inspiring woolly mammoth you saw earlier during the day. After you see its image on the wall of the cave at night, right in front of the fire, you leap up to point it out to your confused family. You grab a burnt stick from the fire and run to the wall, making marks to direct your family’s eyesight. Astonishment, tears and near horror follows, since the family has never seen such a thing and believes they are witnessing magic in action, some sort of spell or enchantment.
“And look what you’ve done. You have made the world’s first drawing,” Gerstein writes.
It’s a really breathtaking, rather goose bump–inducing moment—in a book full of them. In this spread, Gerstein takes us readers behind the folks in the cave, now standing behind the boy to stare in disbelief at the creature on the wall, the first drawing.
In fact, if I had to sum up this book in one word, it’d be wonder. The wonder conveyed in that moment of the first drawing. The wonder the boy feels over life all around him. The wonder he experienced when he came face to face and eye to eye, breathlessly, earlier that day with the mammoth—but then realizing he and the mammoth may not be so different after all.
This wonder leads to an urge to create and communicate, and it all adds up to a stirring tribute to art. At the book’s very close, we revisit the contemporary child, who has drawn an elephant on his blank canvas. “Even today, people are still [drawing],” Gerstein writes. “And it’s still magic!”
Using acrylics, pen and ink, and colored pencil, Gerstein uses dramatic full-bleed spreads to draw us in, and his pacing is just right. The spread where the boy deliriously draws the mammoth on the cave wall is especially striking, Gerstein having broken the moment up into rough panellike spots, during which we see nearly every line the boy draws—right before his confused father yells, “STOP!”
Such the perfect subject matter for a picture book.
And it works like magic.
THE FIRST DRAWING. Copyright © 2013 by Mordicai Gerstein. Spread reproduced by permission of the publisher, Little, Brown and Company, New York.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.