by Sam Juliano
The very first film I ever saw in my very first cinema class remains vivid to me to the present day. The class was “Introduction to Cinema,” the teacher was Professor Anthony Esposito and the institution was Bergen Community College in Paramus, New Jersey. The film, unbeknownst to me at the time is a classic of the cinema, and a film I have revisited countless times since that first viewing some 40 years ago. Albert Lamorisee’s beloved The Red Balloon has continued to reach new generations through DVD and film festivals, and if anything its reputation has risen. Mind you the film was venerated back in the year of its release, and it subsequently won an Academy Award for its story and screenplay by the director, but it’s timeless appeal and universality has made it a popular film for film classes and thematic analysis. Apparently the film has also left a lasting impression on picture book artists.
The first time I negotiated the extraordinary, wordless images in Bob Staake’s arresting picture book Bluebird I immediately envisioned The Red Balloon transferred to a new medium. A young boy is befriended by a bluebird, who follows him to and from school, helps him to make friends, all the while forming a deep emotional and spiritual bond. In Lamorisee’s film, the film’s title specter steadfastly clung to the young French boy at school, on the bus and even at his city apartment and church. While Staake has taken the central idea of the book, and narratively follows the euphoria and heartbreak, he does transpose the settings to a vibrant and wonderfully congested midtown Manhattan with it’s markets, circus cars, cafes, fish markets, street vendors and the backdrop of the Empire State Building and high rises. When disaster does strike in a Central Park setting, one recalls the the pursuit of young boys in narrow Paris alleys and the final destruction of the boy’s guardian angel on a hill.
The killing of Staake’s angelic creature will always result in hushed shock and sadness from young listeners, much as the demise of Lamorisee’s inanimate-object-with-human-qualities always moved audiences. The boy in Bluebird like the one in The Red Balloon is crushed by the death of his soul-mate, seemingly inconsolable. Then an extraordinary event begins to unfold. In The Red Balloon young children in their parents’ arms, street vendors and kids walking see their balloons move away from them up into the sky, eventually converging around the tearful boy in one of the most glorious sequences of color integration in all of cinema. In The Red Balloon, in the film’s most unforgettable moment the boy is lifted into the sky by the balloons of Paris; in Bluebird birds of all colors lift the boy into the sky, where he is ascends the New York skyline up into the clouds. In both movie and picture book it’s a defining redemptive moment (one may recall the scene in the barn in E.B. White’s classic Charlotte’s Web when all of the title character’s children overwhelm the grieving pig Wilbur.) one that invites discussion of Christian resurrection.
When Staake’s book released early in 2013, critics were utterly rapturous in their praise. One scribe enthusiastically opined: “It’s unlike anything else you’ve ever seen.” That statement is a blatant falsehood, but the larger question is how book critics at Kirkus, School Library Journal and other publications failed to mention a single word about the undisguised replication of the main idea, themes and temperament of the 1956 film. It was, however, discussed comprehensively on post threads at many of the most popular sites. Perhaps the critics chose to examine the book on its own terms, which is ultimately the position I have taken. While I was aghast when I first looked through the book, I have since come to ravish the beauty of the book, and to embrace Staake’s vision, irregardless of where he found his inspiration. The palette of the visual design is largely gray, the shapes are geometric and the framing is in the tradition of comic books, and there is a sumptuous artistic unity that of color and texture that is maintained to the final page and end papers. (Yes, uniquely Staake includes those end papers in launching and ending his story in a nice touch.) All the themes seen in The Red Balloon are beautifully transcribed in Bluebird: loneliness, bullying, friendship, childhood innocence and the aforementioned Christian afterlife. In the end, Staake has fashioned his own vision, one that honors its source but brings to the table so many original visual motifs and artistry of the highest order. He has earned his chance at the big game and he’s there solely on his the incomparable beauty of Bluebird. I dare say that the Caldecott Medal winning artist Brian Selznick’s lovely appreciation of The Red Balloon can be equally applied to Staake’s Bluebird:
As a child, I longed for two specific things that I now realize Lamorisee’s movie embodies: the presence of a loving friend and the knowledge that real magic exists in the world. Childhood, in so many ways, is about learning to navigate the world around us, to make sense of what seems overwhelming and gigantic. Having a special companion makes that experience more manageable and less terrifying. To kids, the world of grown-ups is often alien and untranslatable, and so magic becomes a lens through which the incomprehensible universe (as Einstein once called it) becomes comprehensible.
The bottom line is that Bluebird is one of the most beautiful picture books of the year, surely one that straddles ‘masterpiece’ territory. As such it is without any question a Caldecott contender.
Note: This is the ninth review in an ongoing series focusing on Caldecott Medal and Honor book hopefuls in advance of the late-month announcement by the American Library Association