by Sam Juliano
Eve Bunting and Lauren Castillo’s shattering Yard Sale confirms that all the money in the world can never supersede the love of family. The book also documents the heart-wrenching relocation ritual of parting with domestic belongings that are far more cherished for their nostalgic worth than any kind of monetary value. Yard Sale further chronicles a move necessitated by economic hardship from airy suburbia to the claustrophobic environs of the big city, where room is measured by inches instead of yards. As such this exceedingly resonant picture book opines that it usually takes a cathartic event to appreciate something that too often is taken for granted. While last year’s Bad Bye Good Bye by Deborah Underwood and Jonathan Bean recorded a cross country move, the mood was distinctly exhilarating, and the act more of a thrilling adventure. Underwood’s book possesses a metaphysical undercurrent, while Yard Sale is achingly humanist from the first page to the last, rooted as it is in a mandatory situation beyond the control of its unwilling protagonists. This melancholic work evinces remarkable chemistry between veteran children’s literature icon Eve Bunting and Caldecott Honor winning illustrator Castillo, who just last year was in the winner’s circle for her rapturous Nana in the City, another book anchored in kindred immersion. Castillo’s lightening fast encore to Nana is beyond award-worthy, and in the service of Bunting’s impassioned prose, the art is poignant and elegiac, and a stellar example of how astoundingly well an illustrator can embrace and emote on an author’s vision.
The premise of the book -the need to forfeit a dream situation for one acutely restrictive- immediately sets the tone. Declares Bunting: Almost Everything We Own is spread out in our front yard. It is all for sale. We are moving to a small apartment. A young girl is sitting forlornly on the top step of a lovely rustic two story abode overlooking the all-inclusive lot of items that have been put up for sale. These include a teddy bear, a tricycle, patio and living room furniture, a boom box, lamps, a grandfather clock, hats, tennis equipment and a PC monitor, all items that would fall within the treasured sphere of memories. To say that much of this three member family’s past activities have been invested in these properties would be an understatement. The sadly ironic display of a three primary color balloon is meant to signal the event, instead it cues the end of a beloved time span in their lives. Ever optimistic, especially to boost the spirits of their daughter, the mother announces upon a visit to their new dwelling that it is “small but nice.” Castillo’s trademark bold style heightens the sense of loss, as the father pulls out a wall bed in the living room no less – the ultimate symbol of just how drastic their unavoidable trade off would be- and the darkened brown doorway and exposed wall is another painful reminder. Then comes a subtle observation that won’t be picked up by all kids, but no matter as it is clarified further on the following page, when Bunting sadly asserts: Today there are lots of people walking around our front yard, picking up things, asking the price, though Mom and Dad already put prices on them. Of course when people ask the prices on things despite the fact that the cost is displayed it can only mean one thing.
A bargain hunter aggressively offers half the price on a headboard, which we soon find out belongs to the young girl, who selflessly muses: I wish I hadn’t put the crayon marks on there. They were to show how many times I had read ‘Goodnight Moon.’ The idea of decreasing the value of something which is really priceless is heartbreaking. Castillo’s portrait of the girl wearing pink and evincing a glum expression is despairing. The reality of having to do what must be done to achieve the best financial results bring a small measure of acknowledgement, as our girl is reminded by her friends Sara and Petey that the sale attracted many people. Then , the unbearable realization that her bike was purchased causes the girl to physically contest the transaction by holding steady to one of the wheels as the startled buyer inquires if it was actually meant to be for sale. The father soon arrives and explains to his daughter that there is no room for the bike where they are now going, as there is just too much traffic. The girl observes that her father’s eyes “are all teary,” but then doubts what she saw because “My dad doesn’t cry.” Yet, the fact that Castillo draws the father in side profile speaks volumes. What father would not be moved by having to tell their child that they must give up something they love? The double page spread of daughter and father and buyer squatting down displays yet again how Castillo’s inimitable art conveys a searing sense of urgency, and how she is always able to inspire a depth of emotion from her minimalist facial portraits. An agreement is reached when the girl receives a promise that she will get her house back when her family is able to move back in the house, though the economic implications of Yard Sale are that this is more of a dream than anything tangible.
Then the goodbyes to her friends, tempered by the childhood humor of inventing various scenarios that would lessen the sadness of departure, and noting that her girlfriend “smells like Froot Loops.” These include the suggestion of the girl living with Sara for a while, but the idea would threaten the family dynamic. Again the stark embrace of the two girls with the pacifier dependent Petey to the side against the muted background of light green watercolor paints a poignant picture that any child -especially those who have experienced this kind of calamity- can relate to. One of Castillo’s most exquisite tapestries – in fact her art from that point on is extraordinary- features a striking geranium pot being carted off by the purchaser to a pickup truck etched in brown ink, while several others carry away their newest acquisitions. And then the wrenching conclusion to the sale:
Almost everything is gone. Anything that’s left my dad is selling cheap. He and my mom look droopy. My dad is rubbing my mom’s back.
This spread provides seeming evidence that their home was on a cul de sac, further realization that economic problems have struck this brood mercilessly. Castillo’s sketch drawing here is superlative, with arresting perspective. On the next page Castillo does something that can only bring the widest smile for readers. Her beloved Nana from her Cadecott book makes a cameo appearance, affectionately telling the girl:
Aren’t you just the cutest thing? Are you for sale?
Then everything comes apart in one of the year’s most compelling pictures, when the trio embrace in response to the girl’s exasperated query: I’m not for sale, am I? You wouldn’t sell me me, would you?” The dad tells her he wouldn’t for a trillion dollars, which firms up the matter of money being a far less important matter in the scheme of things. The dad then allows the scavengers to claim all that is left for free, and we get a last look at this beautiful home and the equally exquisite homes that surround it on each side. There is a resolve in the final lines to accept the new arrangement and a renewed faith in their love for one another. The circular family profile is alas more homey than anything that has yet appeared, and its evocation is lasting.
In the end, Bunting and Castillo have examined the emotional fallout from a major relocation. One can never know if the new surroundings will bring a new or different measure of happiness, but all pointers indicate the great equalizers of love and togetherness. I can remember many picture books released in 2015 that have given me disparate feelings and levels of appreciation. Of the overwhelming Yard Sale I will admit it is the one book this year that made me cry.
Note: This is the fourteenth 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.