Because children possess an inner wildness, children’s literature is full of wild creatures of all sorts and stripes. Two brand-new picture books on shelves, all about wildness, serve as the yin and yang of one another – one story about a tame creature finding wildness; another about a wild creature seeking security.
Michelle Cuevas’s Smoot: A Rebellious Shadow, illustrated by Sydney Smith, is a story of release. “If life is a book,” it opens, “then Smoot the Shadow had been reading the same yawn-colored page for seven and a half years.” We see here a young boy, the one for whom Smoot is a shadow, and we follow them as the boy lives rather robotically, day to day, in a staid, routine-filled life, “always staying perfectly inside the lines.”
The boy lives a cheerless life, and we never really learn why. Is he depressed? Exceedingly shy? Filled with anxiety? Whatever the reason, it’s because of his reticence, his constrained personality, and (we assume) a healthy dose of fear that Smoot is a shadow living in a world of … well, shadows.
But shadows can dream, we learn. Smoot dreams of adventure and color; here Cuevas has fun with the imagery: “He dreamed of doing a dance in wildflower red.” And, lo and behold, one day he unsticks from the boy. Freedom at last. He runs for it. Just after that, we see a series of wordless spreads, showing Smoot livin’ it up, while the boy (if you look closely, you can spot him) watches with a mixture of shock and curiosity.
As a result of Smoot’s release, other shadows in the community are inspired to fly away – everything from a dandelion’s to a rock’s shadow. Here, illustrator Sydney Smith beguiles us all with the illustration of a fearsome shadow dragon attached to a mild-mannered dragonfly, as well as one showing a small rock whose shadow morphs into a stately castle.
Worrying that things will get out of hand, Smoot reigns the shadows in and, eventually, they all return anyway to their former homes. “Their wishes had come true, after all.” And the boy? He is all too happy to see Smoot re-attach himself, because he had been watching the adventures all along. He sees in Smoot a world of possibilities and wild, carefree joy, and he decides he’d like some of that, thanks very much.
Smith gives the whole shebang a European feel, bringing to life what looks like a small town in Italy. His decisions around the use of line and borders communicate a great deal; readers will see on the very first spread constraining lines – in the floorboard, a framed picture on the wall, a window, the rug on the floor, the very couch upon which the boy sits. Relatively thick borders frame the action on the next few spreads – that is, until the exuberant shadow breaks free in the boy’s dream. Here, Smith puts the entire spread to use, a series of lines on the wooden floor in the boy’s bedroom disappearing on the right side of the spread as the shadow springs forth. All in all, his fluid, dynamic watercolor artwork is the perfect fit for this story of metamorphosis.
Unlike Smoot at the beginning of his story, the parent-less girl, known as Wee Sister Strange, who roams the woods in Holly Grant’s picture book of the same name, has all the freedom in the world. She lives in a crooked old house “with no garden but gloom.” Not only does this opening call forth traditional nursery rhymes (remember the crooked man who lives in a crooked house?), but it also immediately sets a rock-solid tone, one of creepiness -- and a bit of spookiness to boot.
Written in verse---one with occasional end rhymes, but dominated by flowing internal rhymes---we learn that Wee Sister Strange roams the woods in places children would never dare to. She “drinks up the moon [and] the dark,” rides a fearsome bear through the woods at night, talks to forest creatures (in a series of hoots and moans, no less), and she even---get this!---buries the bones of the hapless creatures who become the owls’ dinners. I mean, RIGHT? I did tell you this was a bit eerie, right? And delightfully so.
We see her climb a tree, while the omniscient narrator wonders with us: What is she seeking, as she looks, “far and wide,” over the forest and the marsh adjoining her home? But she doesn’t just look up; she searches down as well, diving into the bog. Yet, her search leaves her stumped.
That is, until she sees a light shining in the distance. Described as a “twinkle,” it’s a beacon for her in the night. It’s the window of a “snug little house,” and through it Wee Sister Strange spies a young girl and her mother. Here, Grant switches, quite effectively, to second person: “[T]here’s you in your bed / With this book ‘neath your nose!” Things get very self-referential as we see that the woman is reading Wee Sister Strange to the girl, our protagonist even standing just outside the window to hear.
And, as it turns out, this “WEE BEDTIME STORY!” is precisely what Wee Sister Strange had been looking for. She even falls asleep, just outside the girl’s window. (Note the puppy on the girl’s bed, who is staring in shock out of the window at Wee Sister Strange. He may be on to her, but he’s the only one who is.)
While we never get any explicit indication that Wee Sister Strange wants to ditch her wild, Puck-like life for one involving a mother and a warm, comfy bed, she does look longingly upon this scene, making us wonder if it’s merely a story she longs to hear. Perhaps she also pines for a family and for the security and safety of a mother’s hug. It does leave the reader something to ponder.
Framed by opening endpapers depicting the sky of a setting sun and closing ones that show a wolf howling in a night-time forest, the story immerses us into a spectral, shadowy world. Illustrator K. G. Campbell bathes Wee Sister Strange in a bright yellow dress and a crown of autumn leaves for her hair, making the palette one of warm golds against the dark blues of the night sky. Grant’s descriptive, evocative text enchants: “She drinks up the moon / Like a cat drinking cream. / She drinks up the dark / Like it’s tea with the queen.”
Both stories brings readers an intriguing mix of something old and something new. Smoot brings to mind Peter Pan himself, while Wee Sister Strange calls upon traditional tales and rhymes of many sorts. Yet both stories, with their solid writing and soft, graceful illustrations, are a breath of fresh air in a crowded picture book landscape.
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.
Top: Smoot: A Rebellious Shadow. Copyright © 2017 by Michelle Cuevas and Sydney Smith. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Dial, New York.