Life is filled with things that are, as they say, more than what meets the eye. The 32-page picture book provides a spectacular format for examining such phenomena, particularly given the inherent drama of the page turn in an illustrated book. Let’s take a look today at two books that show more than one side to a story.
Renato Moriconi’s The Little Barbarian (on shelves next week) is a little masterpiece and was originally published in Brazil. I hesitate to tell you its big reveal, its surprising truth. And that’s because if you’re a picture book lover (of any age), I would hate to ruin it for you.
This is a tall, thin book — you understand when you get to the end how the book’s trim size is a perfect match for the story within — sans any text. On the first spread, we see a man ready to fight. He’s wielding a sword and a shield; he’s wearing a helmet; and he’s running to his horse. Ample white space rests atop these two characters.
As we turn the pages, we see the mighty warrior (eyes always closed, funnily enough) dodge swords, leap over a snake pit, face mythical creatures (Moriconi’s paintings of these otherworldly creatures are graceful and thrilling), dodge man-eating plants, and more. His position on the spreads alternates between up and down and left and right with each page turn. Down, up, down, up, down, up. Repeat. Left, right, left right, left, right. Repeat. He’s either under siege at the bottom of the page or leaping above some sort of foe or danger. You also get surprising clarity on this at the book’s close, though his position on the page is never distracting. It all adds up to a pleasing narrative rhythm.
In the well-paced ending, after the barbarian has just survived a pit of fire (which came flying from the mouth of the creature on the previous spread), he comes to an abrupt stop. Next page: his eyes finally open. Next page: he frowns. Is he pouting? Next page: he cries as a mammoth man with a beard reaches from the sky to pick him up. Is it a god? The very last spread tells you, but you’ll have to discover this for yourself, as I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise.
Evidently, this book received multiple prizes in Brazil, including the FNLIJ award (Fundação Nacional do Livro Infantil e Juvenil) for Best Wordless Picture Book and the Jabuti Award for Best Children’s Illustration. What a delightful turns of events that American readers can now experience it. It’s a breath of fresh air. Or perhaps I should say: It’s quite the ride. (That’s my last hint.)
Kate Gardner’s Lovely Beasts: The Surprising Truth, illustrated by Heidi Smith and coming to shelves next month, has a fairly simple, straight-up premise. Both author and illustrator want to convince you that some members of the animal kingdom are more multi-faceted than we tend to give them credit for. Or, as the book opens, before we even get to the first spread:
“There is always more than meets the eye when it comes to creatures of all kinds. …”
Good life advice, generally speaking.
On the first spread, we see an intimidating-looking gorilla and read merely “fierce ….” But that ellipsis is there for a reason. Turn the page to discover the end of that phrase: “papa.” Gardner provides a bit of context on this second spread, writing that gorillas can be “surprisingly gentle,” particularly as they “build soft nests for their babies to sleep in at night.”
And on we go. Spiders may appear “creepy,” but they are “amazing creatures with many superhero-like qualities” as the “crafters” they are. Tough rhinos, fanged wolves, prickly porcupines, and more. We learn about the softer side of all of these creatures.
Smith’s velvety illustrations steal the show. Each spread features elegant and non-anthropomorphized renderings (via charcoal pencil and Adobe Photoshop) of each creature. The book closes with suggestions for further reading — including a small section “for older readers” — and the short bibliography even includes poetry. (Impressive.)
Two books with surprising truths for eager, expectant readers ready for exploring. With more to discover at each page turn, beasts and barbarians of all sizes will be entertained.
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.
THE LITTLE BARBARIAN. Text and illustrations © Renato Moriconi. English-language edition © 2018 Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. lllustration reproduced by permission of Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
LOVELY BEASTS: THE SURPRISING TRUTH. Text copyright © 2018 by Katherine Gardner. Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Heidi Smith. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, New York.