I’ve mentioned before here at Kirkus—apologies if I sound like a broken record, but it’s so important in the world of picture books—how, in a piece she wrote for A Family of Readers: The Book Lover’s Guide to Children’s and Young Adult Literature, Martha Parravano notes that picture books work best when they are “on the side of the child.” Not all picture books have a child-centered world. Many of them look right over the heads of child readers to wink at the adult, which can sometimes work (if done sparingly, and it very much depends on the book), but it’s often at the expense of the story, which shortchanges children. Esther Averill once referred to a good picture book’s ability to be a “delightful, unadulterated excursion into a child’s world.”
One of the things I’ve always liked about author-illustrator Sergio Ruzzier’s books is that they are utterly on the child’s side. He drops the reader into worlds that are filled with wit and tenderness—and always with what is undeniably a signature artistic style. (There is never ever mistaking a Ruzzier spread for anyone else’s.) They are stories that speak directly to children; Ruzzier seems to have a way of ushering children headlong into a world that genuinely reflects the way they think, and he does it his way with no regard, thank heavens, for what’s trendy in picture books. Say you’re standing in an elevator, hearing bland pop music all day—think lots of John Mayer, bless his heart—and then you hear John Lennon’s rhythm guitar and raucous vocals in “Twist and Shout.” You are now paying attention. That’s a lot like seeing a new Ruzzier book on a bookstore shelf. Last year’s Two Mice wasn’t just one of my favorite picture books of the year; it was one of the best picture books I’d seen in a long time.
And Ruzzier knocks it out of the park again with his newest book, This Is Not a Picture Book! If I must summarize it (with Ruzzier’s books, I’d rather you were next to me and I could just hand you one to experience for yourself): It’s the story of a duckling who finds a book, gets angry with it and even kicks it about for having no pictures, but who then discovers—alongside a bug, who may have very well made its home inside the book the duckling kicked—that pictures in the mind’s eye, as one falls into a story, are a very real thing, indeed. You will read repeatedly that, at its core, it’s a book that is a tribute to the joys of reading. And it is. Just this week, Ruzzier extended the conversation a bit with this post at the Nerdy Book Club’s site, his thoughts on the contemporary academic trend of leveling books. (This unfortunate trend is something I do not miss about school librarianship.)
After the duckling quite literally enters the world of the book—he walks across a log that connects his world of white space to a colorful and offbeat Ruzzierian (I just made that word up) landscape—there’s a series of triumphant spreads in which the duckling rejoices in the fact that he can recognize some of the words. Some of them are funny, he notes. Some are sad; some, wild; some, peaceful. The pictures that the words conjure for the duckling are on happy display, and “all these words carry [him] away.”
Ruzzier is never one to complicate a scene. The “wild” spread features merely the duckling and bug on a boat, braving tall waves: The duckling is reading (of course), and the bug is a bit concerned. The spread is dominated by Ruzzier’s green waves. And that’s all it needs to work. These uncluttered moments also find me lingering over his brushstrokes, which is something I love to find myself doing in picture books. Ruzzier leaves space for the story to breathe through the art and bring respite to one’s eyes. You find yourself staring at watercolor clouds, lost in the colors and wondering over their textures.
And, yes, they are green waves. Ruzzier’s palettes are always ones to bring happy surprises. The green becomes pink in the next spread, where the waters have calmed. These aren’t colors one would typically assign to water, but Ruzzier plays with light, clouds, and shadows in ways that make unanticipated, but always welcome, connections with color and that accentuate the emotions in the story.
Find a copy for yourself, and share it with your favorite child. You will both enjoy it. (A good picture book, Averill also said, “may be placed alongside the best for adults and hold its own. This is a final test for any child’s book.”) It also has fun and clever endpapers that add immensely to the story, but I won’t give that away. In fact, Ruzzier takes advantage of every part of the book to advance the story, kicking it off well before the title page spread.
Read. Share. Repeat. This one is a joy.
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.
THIS IS NOT A PICTURE BOOK! Copyright © 2016 by Sergio Ruzzier. Published by Chronicle Books, San Francsico. Illustration reproduced by permission of Sergio Ruzzier.