by Sam Juliano
Note: This is the third review in the 2015 Caldecott Contender series that will be published at this site over the coming months, up until the January 11th 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.
Sergio Ruzzier is one of those author-illustrators you just know will eventually land squarely in the Caldecott winners circle. Both Have You Seen My New Blue Socks?, a delightful story that will connect with people who look for their glasses only to realize they are hanging on their ears, and last year’s A Letter for Leo, a crowd pleaser in the classrooms about an irresistible friendship between a nondescript weasel and a hibernating bird are picture book masterpieces that showcase this extraordinary classicist’s indelible tapestries in full bloom. The Italian-born artist employs a European sensibility to his work, that exhibits a retro look that is equally striking to the primary audience of this kinds of books, and their art loving guardians. Sharp-eyed viewers might see some persuasive comparisons with the art of renowned artists Leo Politi and Tomie DePaola, but on the other hand Ruzzier is an original whose work is singly identifiable.
The minimal text in his new counting book Two Mice makes for a splendid interactive read aloud learning experience. Ruzzier plays neutral when it comes down to setting genders or the specific relation of two white mice, and simplifies the story in comparison with his previous efforts, opting here to establish his narrative in terms of numbers and the irresistible inconsistency of the various pairing off of objects. The two mice start off sleeping in the bed of their small stone house – “One house” – but there is immediately some unrest on the following spread where “Three cookies” are divided unequally between one delighted mouse and his disgruntled companion. An even more perplexing equation is offered up at a lakefront where our two protagonists encounter “Three Boats” but only “Two oars.” Still, the cookie commando of the previous tapestry unhappily takes on a pair of oars, while the other mouse gleefully rests up in the opposite corner of the boat. Observant kids will notice that what distinguishes one mouse from the other is that sports some brown spots. On the next panel they are seen approaching a bird’s nest (“One nest, Two eggs”) thinking they have an upcoming meal, only to witness “Three Duckings” hatch. Ruzzier signals the impending destruction of the boat in the very next spread with “Three rocks, Two holes”, and then confirms it with the “One shipwreck” of the following page where both are seen as particularly bewildered.
The most dangerous episode for these charismatic rodents plays out when they swim to a small island – “One island, Two Trees” – only to get whisked away by an eagle on a mission – “Three tears” and seeming fate of the two mice as snacks for the bird’s three offspring. Yet on the next page once again the supposition is dashed when our resourceful vermin somehow grab hold of the nests escaping from the clutches of their disgruntled meal flubbers – “One escape.” – Then the dynamic duo embark on the journey home in one of Ruzzier’s most striking atmospheric landscapes, replete with two connotations of a star, one in the night sky, the other in the form of a river starfish. – “One path, Two stars.” The celebratory “Three cheers!” is followed by the spirit of sharing and togetherness, so lovingly invoked on the final page of Will and Nichols’ Caldecott Medal winning Finders Keepers. – “Three carrots, Two onions,” and “One soup.” In the space of thirty-one pages, the story has come full circle.
While Ruzzier is undoubtedly an expressionistic stylist with an eye for the abstract, he has carefully adhered to a detailed design in Two Mice that includes impeccable color coordination, the attractive black typeface of just forty-four words, and a numeric arc that repeats itself four times. The book is emotionally driven by the faces of the mice which alternate between satisfaction, frustration and disdain. Young children caught up in the rollicking text will invariably be also invested in the plight and ultimate triumph of two adventurous mice who learn by trial and tribulation that life isn’t always fair. Only when experiencing how things don’t always work seamlessly can they truly understand the magnanimous spirit that permeates the book.
The art in Two Mice, much like Ruzzier’s previous work is steeped in surrealist tones which in one sense accentuates the universality of the theme, but on another spurs on the creative unconsciousness that is inherent in the style. There has always been an otherworldly essence to his muted tapestries that -depending on the perspective- transports his mise en scenes to another era whether hundreds of years in the past or in the future where there is more than a hint of environmental decay. The subtle juxtaposition of images and perspective bring added imaginative possibilities for both the child and adult readers. Clouds and water are integral elements in Two Mice’s world, and the subdued applications of pink, yellow and shades of blue help mightily to establish the prevailing moods. In addition to the aforementioned starry night panel, the escape from the eaglets, the rowing expedition and the soup making feature some magnificent illustrations, though the same can be said for the art throughout. The book’s trim size (6 inches by 4 inches) is a perfect fit for the diminutive subject, but will have added appeal to the young readers with its magnifying glass hub. Working on a smaller canvas Ruzzier is forced to economize, and the success he has achieved is doubly impressive. There is little room for down space, and each image and inflection must serve a purpose to the whole, much like a short story writer or poet who much make everything count. The Caldecott Medal and Sergio Ruzzier will no doubt be meeting up and Two Mice makes a vital case to the youngest readers and the adults who profess a special hankering for classicist art.