by Sam Juliano
Two of 2013’s most popular picture books in the stores and the libraries are also two of the most brilliantly-conceived and artistically accomplished of the year. They are united on this Sunday morning post because of their subversive underpinnings, though the second of the pair, Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett’s irreverent Battle Bunny is the subversive champ in a year that also features the magnificent Mr. Tiger Goes Wild in that department. These are books of uncommon artistic unity – The Snickett/Klassen collaboration The Dark showcases some of the finest art to be seen in any picture book this year, while Battle Bunny desecrates the art of book making, capturing all the fun seen through the eyes of a child looking to do some mischief. Both books are extraordinary and deserve close scrutiny of the American Library Association’s Caldecott committee on Monday.
The Dark, is thought to be a loose picture book adaptation of a creep old poem “in the Dark Dark Wood” but the end pulls away from that source and inspiration.” The book brings two of the book world’s most celebrated artists together: author Lemony Snickett, who penned the Series of Unfortunate Events and illustrator Jon Klassen who managed an amazing feat last year by winning the Caldecott Medal for This is Not My Hat and also gaining one of the five Honor book citations for his rapturous Extra Yarn, which was written by Mac Barnett, the author who co-wrote Battle Bunny with Jon Scieska. To put it bluntly, The Dark is a picture work treasure, in large measure because of Klausen’s indescribably exquisite art and use of light, shadow and black. There is a fear of the unknown through the book -it’s as if the spirit of film classicist Val Lewton were guiding Klassen’s brush strokes and modulating the mood. Snickett’s prose is poetic and compelling throughout, though he does drop the ball at the end, yielding to the seeming necessity of the happy ending with a young audience, but there could have been a more compromising resolution. As it is though, this allegorical book did broach the idea that we often must exorcise our demons to achieve an inner peace. The story is superlatively paced and expressive, and it speaks to children everywhere with fears that are common everywhere. The story speaks of the dark that lives and thrives in the basement of the house and the young boys who investigates with his flashlight. Says Snickett in one of several riveting passages:
But mostly it spent its time in the basement. All day long the dark would wait in a distant corner, far from the squeaks and rattles of the washing machine, pressed up against some old, damp boxes and a chest of drawers nobody ever opened.
The goache and digital illustrations are stunning in their contrast and precision, especially on the multiple pages dominated by black. indeed some of the pages are black stock and Klassen’s work here is singularly distinctive. The yellow and black typography alternate and make each page a classic of illustrative perfection. The employment of minimalism too is arresting, as is the case in one double pager of complete dark except for a few words and a small illustration of Laszlo’s head under the covers. The Dark is fueled by fear of the unknown and the belief that what can’t be seen is the most terrifying prospect of all. As adults reading the book we can remember times when we were younger and needed to resolve the fears that haunted us. As kids coming upon the book for the first time there’s a message that so much of what is processed as fear is only a kind of uncertainty. The Dark is a magnificent vision.
Jon Scieska has been creating mischief for years, turning fairy tales on their head and delighting may of the middle graders with his satiric humor. The True Story of the Three Pigs and The Stinky Cheese Man, both written by Szieska and illustrated by Lane Smith made mince meat of the original narratives with gleeful originality. The new book Battle Bunny contains two texts – the first is the book’s untouched presentation. The book is called “Birthday Bunny.” The second – and this is the book’s lingering deceit – is a second text that contains the scribbling of a smark but devilish child who is proceeds to deface the book from the front cover all the way to the back. He crosses out “Birthday Bunny” and writes in “Battle Bunny” and then replaces party rhetoric with that of war and destruction. Even the title page features changes to the place and date of publication. And many of the illustrations are desecrated as well. The book is purposely made to look like the old “Golden Book” series that some of us baby boomers grew up with. Some of the ideas practically cross the line like changing “It’s your birthday” to “It’s doomsday,” but concerned parents must know the ending is innocuous enough, and the entire book was formed in the mind of a child who flexed his imagination. The book isn’t for all tastes, but it received excellent reviews from book critics and must be considered a true original.
Note: This is the eighteenth 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.