by Sam Juliano
The great irony in the early-age pink lemonade picture book Flora and the Flamingo is that boys seem to like it just as much as the girls. This is one of the year’s most innovative works, one where the generous construction of interactive flaps enhances the movement in a book that explores grace and agility in a dynamic, decidedly cinematic setting. This wholly unique wordless book is the creation of Molly Idle, a former Dreamworks animator, and proper negotiation of the flaps is comparable to a run through a series of animation cells.
Flora and the Flamingo records the chance meeting of a pudgy little girl in a bathing suit and a sensual and agile flamingo, that immediately develops into a relationship formed on imitation and dance. And a good deal of flattery that isn’t immediately acknowledged. Like all budding picture book relationships (one may recall Chris Raschka’s Yo Yes!) there is initial suspicion, but soon enough their is some chemistry and rapport, and a shared dance that showcases mutual balletic grace, culled largely from studied application.
The use of the interactive flaps of course are integral to both the progression of the story and how the girl and the flamingo help each other find themselves. In what can rightly be seen as an “opposites attract” story or a story about a free-spirited girl and a more inhibited “model” of grace who share a sense accomplishment, one that will surely alter them forever in the best sense. The reader’s engagement with the book is comparable to sitting in one of the closest rows to a ballet ring. Kids won’t be able to understand or appreciate ballet as an art form or an exuberant expression of control and movement, but will be captivated by the process of imitation and the humorous pitfalls that help to forge a bond and sense of camaraderie. Similarly they will understand the concept of hard work and how it can lead to resounding success, and how some initial clumsiness can transform into soaring triumph.
One of 2013’s three extraordinary wordless picture books (the others are Aaron Becker’s Journey and Lizi Boyd’s Inside Outside) Flora and the Flamingo is easily the sparest and most and minimalist of the trio and a sterling example of what is meant by the adage “less is more.” That “less” is an exquisite book design with a sublime color scheme: the pages are milk white with pink flower pedals on branches following the top borders that give the book’s shape a theatrical symmetry. In a book that is about dancing and and how that dancing informs, indeed engenders or defines friendship, there is nothing but the protagonists on display. There is no clutter, nothing to obstruct or compromise the thematic dance or that euphoric dive shown in the book’s most spectacular set piece on the book’s one four-page pull out. It’s a moment of great ecstasy, the climax of a stirring symphony, the most difficult movement in grueling ballet, and it signals the full maturation of this unlikely relationship.
An extreme minority have lodged complaints over the excessive amount of white space in the book and how it could have been more effectively utilized by adding some words and sentences. I have concluded that such criticisms are preposterous not only because the book from the start was conceived and planned as wordless, but because such an addition would violate the delicate balance of the story, which has a silent movie feel to it, and the emotions emanate from art and imagination.
Flora and the Flamingo is a natural for Caldecott consideration.
Note: This is the thirteenth 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.