Blue is a tie with yellow for my favorite color. (It depends on my mood. I’m not really sure how anyone can pick just one favorite color anyway.) Two new picture books on shelves use blue as a launching point to tell exhilarating stories, and both are unlike many picture books you’ll see on shelves today.
Jillian Tamaki’s They Say Blue is unusual in that it’s not often we see contemporary picture books with the kind of meditative musings we see here, ones that aren’t so easily wrapped up in a tidy, thematic bow. In other words, as the Kirkus review notes, this isn’t exactly a book about colors, nor is it exactly a book about seasons. Instead, it is “a reminder to slow down, savor the present, notice small details, and relish childlike wonder.”
In this book, a young girl sits on the shore, noting the colors of her world. She goes from the blue sky to the blue sea—but she notes with a look of genuine wonder that the blue sea consists of water that looks clear when she holds it in her hands. From there, she goes to blue whales, to the orange of an egg yolk, to the red blood that circulates in her body. When she sees the “something new” that is a purple flower growing in early spring, Tamaki shifts to musings on the seasons: “It’s warm at last,” the girl says, stripping herself of her heavy winter coat. In the striking spread that follows, she stretches herself tall and sprouts—like a tree. Here, Tamaki paints her literally becoming a tree, and it’s beguiling.
As she cycles to winter (“Oh, I’m so sleepy …”) and back to colors (“Black is the color of my hair”), we then see her in bed. Her mother appears, and they watch black crows through the girl’s bedroom window. Tamaki brings the text full-circle in the end with a reference to “a sea of sky.”
This is a (delightfully) meandering, contemplative text—more of that, please, especially for sharing with children in language arts classrooms, as this would make a splendid writing prompt—and Tamaki’s paintings, rendered both digitally and via acrylics, are equally enchanting. As the girl’s imagination soars, so do the book’s colors and dynamic lines. (There are no borders around any illustrations in this book, because borders can’t possibly contain this girl’s curiosity.) I also appreciate that her moods are addressed: In one pair of spreads, we see her attempt to sail a sea of grass (“a golden ocean”), which is interrupted by a gray storm cloud. I can’t do this, she basically tells herself, storming off, deterred by the inconvenient and disappointing rain. But it’s not long after that she’s sprouting into a tree, her joy unrestrained.
A riot of color, this one is a welcome visit to the world of a child’s thoughtful observations. As I understand it, this is Tamaki’s first picture book (she’s known for her graphic novels), and I hope she makes more.
I think the perfect companion to Tamaki’s book is Geraldo Valério’s Blue Rider, on shelves this week. Valério was born in Brazil and now lives in Toronto. If you know your art history, you already know where the book gets its title. For this story, Valério was inspired by Der Blaue Reiter (which translates to the book’s title), the German Expressionist group that formed in Munich at the turn of the last century. It included Franz Marc, Marianne von Werefkin, Paul Klee, and Wassily Kandinsky. If you’re imagining, based on this story of Valério’s inspiration, that this one is also a riot of color, you’d be right.
The book opens with a drab city skyline, and we zoom in to see a girl in one of the buildings, staring out the window. She leaves the building and walks on a crowded city street. We see four spreads of bustling, busy city sidewalks; the girl in her bright blue clothing stands out, and most people seem distracted, some by their cell phones. When the girl sees a blue book in the middle of a sidewalk, her face brightens, she retrieves it, and she hugs it to her chest. (It almost looks to me like the cover of Valério’s Turn on the Night, published in 2016, but I don’t know if that’s intentional. Evidently, Franz Marc adored horses, so perhaps the horse is a reference to that.)
The rest of this wordless tale is that the girl takes the book back home to her tall apartment and reads it. It brings her great joy. The end. But it’s everything that happens after she opens the book until the last page we are reading that steals the show. Here, we see that the girl has opened the book to a spread showcasing a blue flying horse. After that, he’s seen flying over some drab buildings. Are they in the book, or is this now in the girl’s imagination? No matter. What really matters is the journey.
And what an adventure it is, Valério providing readers a series of vividly colored abstract expressionist collages. The colors and shapes that, early on, constitute the horse expand and grow. They shift. New patterns emerge. The perspectives are very much flattened, and the forms, reductive—as they were for artists in the Der Blaue Reiter movement. There are eight glorious spreads of these playful abstract constructions. This will be a delight for your more right-brained readers and perhaps a challenge for readers used to more traditional narrative structures (with text).
Later, we see the girl hugging the book once again (she is mesmerized), and we see the outside of her building, as we did at the book’s opening. We see those drab colors again, except for her one room. We can see inside, as if the wall is not there, and her room is filled with color. She sleeps with a huge smile on her face. She has been temporarily lifted from a dull reality, quite possibly changed forever.
And that’s what books can do. And art. And maybe even the color blue.
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.
THEY SAY BLUE. Text and illustrations copyright © 2018 Jillian Tamaki. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Abrams, New York.
BLUE RIDER. Copyright © 2018 by Geraldo Valério. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Groundwood, Toronto.