by Sam Juliano
Note: This is the second review in the 2015 Caldecott Contender series that will be published at this site over the coming months, up until the January 30th scheduled awards date. The books that will be examined are not necessarily ones that are bonafide contenders in the eyes of the voting committee, but rather the ones this writer feels should be. The order they will be presented is arbitrary as some of my absolute favorites will be presented near the end.
Fire trucks and the men who engineer them have always won the star struck adoration of the younger elementary school kids. When the department runs demonstrations for school kids they are greeted with the most captive audience they could ever hope for. Kids of course are hopelessly smitten with all the firefighter’s paraphernalia -the ladders the bells, boots and helmets and the stories of heroism that are relayed in simple but compelling terms. At that most impressionable age, some kids are convinced they know their calling, while others can’t imagine anything more exciting than the prospect of responding to a three-alarm fire. Even after they are told of the danger, and chances involved with this vocation, they see these prospective activities as adventurous and recipient of great respect around the community. The carnival like atmosphere that often accompanies a big fire is as alluring as the scene-specific sounds that heighten the urgency of the moment.
Author-illustrator Mike Austin, creator of the irresistible picture book Junk Yard, knows precisely what sounds and visuals comprise this most dreaded of domestic calamities. Using colorfully appealing mixed media art that recalls Donald Crews’ popular transportation books, Austin brings together some visceral spreads to re-create this sensory experience, accentuating the need to move quickly and how vital it is to have trained firefighters. From the dazzling cover, which features a long hook and ladder truck that rolls out over the spine and back panel, through safety oriented end papers that compile the most important items needed to combat a fire, Austin understands that there is no hedging when it comes to equipment, which could in the end be the difference between life or death. Or certainly that is the warning he tactfully presents in a book that recreates the sounds that are exclusive to this event, and are so vital to the safety of those on both ends of the emergency. Austin superbly relates the sudden intrusion of the way firemen are alerted by first depicting a tranquil, sunny day outside the firehouse, where Engine No. 9 is being attended two by two men, one of whom is playing with the company’s Dalmatian, who leaves out the window from the driver’s passenger side of the truck. Another is re-situating a fire extinguisher in an open back panel that features and axe and a first aid kit. The sun shines down innocuously enough, but then on the very next page the words “Alert! Alert!” and three notifications of “Fire!” each in progressively larger type are joined by the barking dog. The next turn is terrific: The sounds of “Whoosh” accompany two fireman coming down the pole in a scenario that may well be outdated, but was always part and parcel to the calls decades ago.
Then the repeated alliterative “Brrrrrrriiing!” recreates the breakneck urgency of the moment, followed by the “Weooo! Weooo! Weeooo!” and “Honk! Honk! Honk!” as a fire truck barrels down the road wedging its way between and ahead of other vehicles, while the thick black smoke above signifies they are approaching their intended location. The scene of the fire -Luigi’s Italian restaurant is situated at the line of buildings in seeming suburbia, though one quickly enough recalls the fire and building configuration in Vera Williams’ Caldecott Honor book A Chair for my Mother. Austin’s cascade of billowing smoke looks like enveloping hair springs, while the path of the engine is marked by the sirens blaring, both alerting people to yield and others to stay clear. From inside and outside buildings people point towards the fire, while a school bus has pulled over to the side of the road. To the rhetorical chants of “Hurry! Hurry!” yellow suited firefighters dash towards the disaster with ladder, and hoses, that are hooked up to the truck and a nearby fire hydrant. A hose is then pulled by a solitary marauder who prepares to douse flames. Characterized with the sound of “Whoosh!” flames are slowly extinguished, while on another vertical spread a fireman enacts the ultra-dangerous task of climbing a ladder to a window and the fire within. “Climb! Climb! Climb!” is echoes as a man takes on a mission, and then uses an axe to assist in the efforts to quell the fiery deluge. He then crawls throw one room, securing and saving the life of a crying baby in what was clearly an unconscionably close call. The eternally grateful family are gathered together with the baby at the end if the siege, which another fireman placing a wooden horse in front of the restaurant. The owner expresses his gratitude by driving in his “Luigi on Wheels” truck for the benefit of the firefighters, and Italian food is offered up on a long table. Once again the sun shines benignly after a real tragedy was averted because of a lightening quick response.
Austin’s art beautifully captures his story’s temperament. Before the fire is acknowledged, the day is shown in bright, rich colors- pastel blue sky, outdoor roominess , and glorious sun rays. The celebratory mood during the Italian food banquet at the end is similarly transcribed in vibrant colors. During the fire the tones are muted and darker, the surroundings of course are claustrophobic and the line smudging announces chaos. Fire and smoke are seen in abstract terms, and the red collages effectively convey the life or death nature of the event. At the back the author offers up a “What to Do During a Home Fire” checklist takes from “Be A Hero!” from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and a repeat of the front end papers display the items worn and used by firefighters. No picture book to date has been as successful as Fire Engine No. 9 in giving young readers a conflagration of sounds and images during one of life’s most fearful catastrophes. Fire Engine No. 9 is a terrific read aloud book, but for its wholly dynamic art is deserves to be cited in the Caldecott equation.