by Sam Juliano
Muon Van’s In a Village by the Sea is in the simplest terms a nursery rhyme that comes full circle. It commences with a fairy tale salutation: In a fishing village by the sea there is a small house, with a striking color spread featuring a Vietnamese fisherman rowing around the mountainous island where this simple abode is situated on a lofty perch overlooking sea level greenery and the water. The final stanza of the rhyme – and in that house is a family waiting for him to come home featuring a seascape after sunset intimates that said fisherman has completed his day of work and is preparing to return home. Objects and living things are all part of this interconnected tale whose minimalism gives opportunity for the book’s remarkable illustrator, April Chu to produce some of the loveliest art in any book this year, whether the target audience is children or adults. Chu paints loving tapestries in the sublime tradition of intricate Japanese woodblocks, providing readers of all ages with detailed art, the kind that invites lengthy inspection and ravishing appreciation. The visual magnificence begins on the dedication page, where Chu pays homage to Daniel San Souci, a beloved and gifted artist of a bevy of exceptional books. The fisherman prepares for his day and the loosening of the rope that keeps his boat ashore, followed by a faithful dog. There is a transparent texture to the mirror image of the boat with muted browns, reds and greens, while a striking perspective features an endless eye line of the sea and the sharp mountainous terrain of his island home.
The aforementioned opening panel is astonishing in detail. A fellow fisherman negotiates a net, many other boats and their proprietors are busy setting up camp on the water. A sharp eyed viewer can even see a white dog on near the slate platform to the elevated house. Nebulous clouds seem to portend some gloomy weather, and the water is visualized in prosaic terms. Van and Chu then accentuate the house, one that sublimely recalls Zhang Yimou’s sublime work of cinema, Raise the Red Lantern and some of the backdrops of the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. The brown tiles on the thatched roof, the dog looking through the window courtesy of a wind-blown curtain, jungle foliage under, over and alongside this scenic and hospitable abode and in the distance a fleet of hopeful trawlers complete this picture. Then the kitchen is afforded the magnifying glass – In that kitchen is a bright, glowing fire – adorned by the ubiquitous orange-red lanterns, cooking hardware a lovely flower-adored stain glass window. The dog assumes investigative mode, finally documented by an arresting overhead painting of the looking looking up a steaming noodle soup cooking in a wide pot. The soup’s creator, a seemingly melancholic young woman is busy churning at the table noted by vegetative efficiency, as the ever faithful dog looks on affectionately: By that soup sits a woman, watching and stirring. More puzzle parts to a story that progresses with each turn of the page with an integral element of the previous panel are then unveiled: By that woman is a sleepy child, yawning and turning.
Keeping the observations from above we then see the dog spying a dusty hole “tucked in the shadows” under a throw rug, as mother continues to work, soup boils, and baby reaches for doggie’s tail. Plants, foot sandals tucked in an open closet, a tea pot and saucer and bamboo plates of fish and veggies enrich this brown-toned robust tapestry. We then see the object of the dog’s interest: In that hole is a brown cricket, humming and painting. It is a grand double page spread, visually amplified with a full-bodied cricket wielding four paint brushes under the watchful eyes of the fascinated canine.
We then move to a different realm connecting reality with meditative properties when we sees the results of the crickets artistry: In that painting is a sudden storm, roaring and flashing. We see the screws holding up the palette, with conch and snail shells and all the related accouterments. The picture is dazzlingly atmospheric. Then we see an extension of the storm and the all-too-familiar white boat crashing and rolling, as waves crash and lightening strikes. The family’s besieged patriarch is on that boat hoping the storm will end without disaster. The next turn of the page reveals the most emotional tapestry in the book as the fisherman gazes at a three pictures: one of the mysterious cricket (the book’s Greek Chorus, though up for several interpretations), wife, son and dog, and the house and island seen from a distance. Then Chu showcases the house in exquisite terms, stressing the familial love and warmth that is the main theme of this work. Again the rich double-page spread is evocative, showing the most striking qualities of this unique type of art. Readers are left with an enigmatic finale, as the next to last tapestry features the family looking at the fleet that no doubt includes the father, yet the critic, who manifests the power of the artist surveys a more somber scenario of a sole fisherman who appears to be on watch, yet still attuned to the probability of safe passage.
In a Village by the Sea provides further inspiration by way of the manner of its creation. Van’s father was a lifelong fisherman who credited his resourceful wife for the family’s prosperity, and it is to be noted she was part of the boat people exodus that left her country for Hong Kong. The book doesn’t sport a dust jacket, but this is no detriment when one considers the nature of this type of art is enhanced by a harder introductory surface which stresses a sense of permanence. To say that In a Village by the Sea showcases some of the most beautiful art in any picture book in this or any other year would be like saying that Van Gogh’s Starry Night or Da Vinci’s The Last Supper are immortal works of art. But there you have it. For potential viewers the proof will be in the pudding. For the Caldecott committee this will no doubt inspire the same measure of illustrative confidence as our clairvoyant cricket preparing some awe-inspiring beauty on the book’s spirited frontispiece.
Note: This is the eleventh 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.