The ALA Youth Media Awards were announced this week, and I’m still coming down from that high. It’s always very exciting—if you’re someone who follows picture books closely—to hear the Caldecott winner, as well as to find out which picture books win in other categories.
As the week calms down and I look at new picture books coming out in February, there’s one new story that catches my eye. It’s still so early in the year and my head swims from the books just deemed the best of 2014, but this gets my attention, primarily because of its unforgettable protagonist and its humor. Sean Taylor’s Hoot Owl, Master of Disguise, illustrated by newcomer Jean Jullien, is on shelves this month.
The title page spread doesn’t mince words: The book’s title, all laid out in white letters on a pitch-black nighttime spread, is huge. And standing there, not looking very intimidating or…well, disguised at all, is Hoot Owl himself. Hoot Owl might think he’s a master spy of the night, but he can’t help but look flat-out adorable with his very round body and huge, piercing eyes.
Hoot Owl flies through the “darkness of midnight” and looks for prey. He flies quickly. He flies swiftly. He tries to be stealthy, and he tries to be the killer-predator he was born to be. First up, he sees a tasty rabbit. The exceedingly cute creature stares ahead, blind to the presence of Hoot Owl, hiding behind a tree.
Instead of relying on his skills as a hunter of the night, he creates a costume. “Everyone knows … I am a master of disguise,” he tells the reader. He dresses up as a delicious carrot. Hoot Owl just knows the rabbit will fall for his trick.
Wait. “It doesn’t work,” he says. “Never mind.” This is right after the rabbit blithely scampers off.
It’s funny stuff, Hoot Owl’s rejection in the face of such blatant self-confidence.
He doesn’t give up, though. He once again cuts through the night air, Taylor’s text emphasizing his prowess as a predator, using effective metaphors (“I swoop through the bleak blackness like a wolf in the air”) that are all the funnier when Hoot Owl is met with more rejection. He dresses up like a mother sheep in order to try to catch a lamb. He becomes a birdbath in order to attempt to catch a pigeon.
And, later, the figurative language becomes laugh-out-loud funny; at one point, Taylor writes that the night lays before Hoot Owl “as black as burnt toast.” It’s as if Hoot Owl is trying a bit too hard to spin his alleged fierceness with a metaphor way too forced, and it’s a great moment.
Nothing works for our resolute hero. His repeated refrain may be “I am Hoot Owl! I am very, very hungry.” But he can’t manage to satisfy his own need for food.
In the end, yes, he manages to find some food, but his snack is probably the last thing child readers will expect. And, not surprisingly, it’s funny. Eventually, he disappears into the night, and “the world can sleep again.”
Whew. He had me scared for a moment there.
Jullien is an artist who, previously, has worked in many other mediums, including photography and installations. He lives in London, and this is his first picture book for children. The colors are bold; the shapes are simple; and outlines are thick. Taylor, also British, has written many books for children across genres, and this one’s a winner, the humor dry and perfectly understated and Hoot Owl, a very funny character I hope we readers see again.
It’s, quite simply, a hoot.
HOOT OWL, MASTER OF DISGUISE. Text copyright © 2014 by Sean Taylor. Illustrations copyright © 2014 by Jean Jullien. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.
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.