Author-illustrator Randy Cecil has written and/or illustrated nearly 25 (if I’m counting correctly) picture books in his career thus far, and I always like to see what he’s up to. (2008’s Duck never fails to put a serious lump in my throat.) His newest book, Lucy (on shelves in early August), defies categorization in some ways. Let’s just say it defies, as the Kirkus reviewer notes, simple categorization. That is, it’s a picture book, to be sure, but it’s a 144-page one.
It’s the story of a stray dog. Readers see in flashbacks, “her former life,” that this dog once had a home (though one wonders if it was a lonely life, as her owners aren’t often around) but inadvertently wandered away from her people one fateful day during a visit to the park. Now living in a box in an alleyway in the town of Bloomville, the dog wakes daily to the sounds of distant musicians. She immediately runs through town to an apartment building with a red door and waits patiently. A little girl named Eleanor lives there with her father and—after digging around in the hallway steamer trunk to find a ball of string—feeds scraps down to the dog from a second-story window.
As you might expect, readers discover at the book’s close that the girl and her father adopt the dog, the girl naming her Lucy. What is especially pleasing about this book is the journey there, the way that Cecil structures the story itself, often using repetition, and how he seamlessly pulls together this compelling and tender, yet never cloying, narrative.
It’s a book divided into four acts, and each act is further divided into what you could call scenes. This is a nod to the fact that, as it turns out, the girl’s father longs to be on the vaudeville stage. Daily, we see him trying to perfect his juggling, and he’s quite good. Yet, once he actually stands on stage, he is overcome with stage fright and is yanked off by one of those so-called Vaudeville Hooks. To further accentuate this aspect of the story, each illustration—save for the double-page, full-bleed act reveals—Is contained in a single circle on the page, as if we’re looking via spotlight at a stage performance.
The illustrations, rendered in oil, are in various shades of gray. All of them. There’s not one spot of color to speak of in the story, other than the red on the book’s cover and the solid red endpapers. It’s as if we could be watching an old black-and-white film. I love that the dog runs every morning to what is described as “the apartment building with the red door,” yet that particular shade of red is left to the reader’s imagination.
There are consistent structural elements in the text and the artwork, and Cecil leaves surprises for the reader who takes the time to notice the details. For instance, the dog wakes to the same sounds every morning—music and the sounds of cars—but the instruments vary, and one morning she might hear a car door slamming and the next, a car horn honking. On her way to Eleanor’s home, she runs past the same establishments (such as, Bertolt’s Butcher Shop, “the diner with the questionable scraps,” and “the silly pigeons in the park”), but in some of the locations there are new details. (The dog never has time, however, for “the one-eyed cat in the window,” which to me is the book’s funniest detail.)
Best of all, these consistent pieces all work together via Cecil’s measured pacing to create connections between the characters and to propel the story. The reason that Eleanor’s father re-discovers his love of juggling and his desire to be on the vaudeville stage is because, after Eleanor digs around in that steamer trunk for the string, he sees it open, spotting his snow-globe collection. (Yes, he can juggle snow globes! Like a pro!) Lucy’s addition to the family at the book’s close is the result of an appearance on stage with Eleanor’s father after Lucy spots a favorite toy, which Cecil earlier introduces into the story via Eleanor. The girl didn’t know, of course, that she had precisely what Lucy needed, nor does the father realize he’s quite literally juggling it, but it all comes together beautifully in the end. It’s a satisfying conclusion, because of every piece that came before it and because everything is in its place. There’s not a wasted moment in this thick book. The feelings of joy it brings readers is well-earned; Lucy is finally in a happy home, and Eleanor’s father has found his confidence. Everything is connected, and they were clearly meant to be together.
There’s also a good dose of humor throughout (the other vaudeville acts alone are entertaining), as well as close calls between Eleanor and Lucy, as Eleanor sets out to find the dog one morning after having failed to feed her. Children will enjoy spotting these missed connections, revel in being one up on the characters.
Lucy is unlike any other picture book you’ll see this year. A breath of fresh air.
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.
LUCY. Copyright © 2016 by Randy Cecil. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.