I’ve expressed on more than one occasion my love for international picture book imports. They are always exciting to see, breathing life into the contemporary American picture book landscape.
Read the last Seven Impossible Things on 'Squid and Octopus.'
And the Dutch? Well, Dutch picture book creators are always, it seems, doing interesting and beautiful things with picture book text and art. Case in point: If you love picture books and haven’t seen Ronald and Marije Tolman’s award-winning The Tree House, get to your nearest library or bookstore as fast as your feet can possibly carry you.
If you’re interested in seeing picture book releases from the Netherlands, Lemniscaat is where you want to look. One of their spring releases just came to my attention. And it’s one of the most intriguing and thought-provoking picture book titles you’ll see this year.
Originally released in 2010 in the Netherlands, The Man in the Clouds, out April here in the States, comes from author and songwriter Koos Meinderts and renowned Dutch illustrator Annette Fienieg, who evidently has illustrated more than 80 picture books in her career.
This diamond in the rough is one to muse on, and your first indication of that is the quote on the title page from Willem Hussem: “What you possess is on its way to others.”
There is a mountain. It’s always been there. The elderly man, who comes to live on it, was initially a mystery to the townspeople down in the valley. “Suddenly, he was there, as if he had fallen out of the sky. But as soon as he settled down in his little wooden house on top of the mountain, it was as if he had always been there.”
And the people call him “the man in the clouds.”
Daily, he looks at a mysterious painting hanging in his home, of which readers merely get a side view. It is of “a landscape so beautiful, so marvelously empty…this is what it must have looked like when the world began. You could see how everything was colored and shaped by the light of the rising sun.” Fienieg—in her graceful, gentle watercolors—shows the man, with his cat in tow, gazing with deep contentment upon the artwork.
The best part? He “share[s] his happiness” with anyone who is willing to climb to his mountaintop home. And I mean anyone and without judgment: the goatherd who is mocked by the village children; the girl who has ceased speaking altogether; the elderly lady who pushes a baby carriage and a doll she feeds with a bottle; the man who talks back to the voices he hears in his head; and “the lonely boy who was actually a girl.” (Arguably, the latter is the best spread in a book full of beautiful ones—delicate and revealing and poignant.)
When the village folk see the art on the wall, they momentarily forget the gloominess and ugliness of life.
Now. If I gave away the plot line here, I’d not be able to forgive myself. I can’t ruin this read for fellow picture book junkies. But I’ll say this much more: A man in a suit shows up, who reveals to the so-called man in the clouds that his painting is actually worth a lot of money. This changes the man in not-so appealing ways, as he determines to do everything he can to protect it—no matter the cost. Fienieg’s palette, diminishing in color and brightness, reflects the man’s dark metamorphosis.
But, before all is lost, he makes a dramatic decision about the fate of the painting. Haunting and profound—and, surely, disturbing to some—it will leave readers thinking for days on end.
This is precisely what I love about the book—it affords copious space for child readers to ponder one very substantial philosophical question about the value (in more ways than one) of art and nature in our lives. Yet it doesn’t give them a tidy, neat-as-a-pin answer.
So refreshing is this story. It’s not often we see contemporary picture book parables like this, pulled off with such elegance and restraint—and asking the big questions without bungling them with too many Good Intentions.
Stop by to see The Man in the Clouds. It’s a visit you won’t soon forget.
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books.
The Man in the Clouds. Text copyright © 2010 by Koos Meinderts. Illustration © 2010 by Annette Fienieg. First U.S. Edition © 2012. Spread used with permission of Lemniscaat.