by Sam Juliano
Jonathan Livingston Seagull was one of the best-selling books of the seventies. This spiritual novella is about self-perfection and soaring in flight. The work spawned a popular movie which in large measure kept the author’s vision intact. Recalling my experience of reading the book in my senior year in high school as I engaged with Helen Frost and Rick Lieder’s breathtaking Sweep Up the Sun I again understood the exhilaration felt by those who explore the natural world. Helen Frost (there is something inherently poetic in that name) and Rick Lieder previously collaborated on Step Gently Out, a lyrical immersion of the insect universe. The new book is just as extraordinarily beautiful as Step, again combining Frost’s evocative word economy with spectacular close-up photography by Lieder that replicates the buoyancy of flight and pictorial splendor of the cinema. Frost’s words are meant to inspire people to strive for excellence, to achieve their goals through individual application, to visit places not yet traversed. Like her famed namesake, she urges young people to walk down that road not taken. You might reach your destination alone or with some others who share your vision. Your determination will allow you to advance way up the ladder, perhaps with little fanfare. Frost’s poetry is a textbook example of making every word count, and her special word pictures are given the invigorating and intoxicating aerial photographs by an artist who knows well the language of movement, space and expression.
An arresting shot of two robin offspring with their mouths wide open preparing to be fed in is showcased on the first end papers, before Frost’s poetry is launched with Rise into the air on the strength of your wings, alongside the full spread of a blue jay, while on the following page sparrows are seen is less austere terms to the command Go out to play in the sky. Then we see a red maned house finch opposite another sparrow as the words define their movement: Trusting it to hold you/as you learned to fly.
A majestic female northern cardinal answers the call of Spread your feathers, sweep up the sun, ride the wind and explore, and then a downy woodpecker spreads out to three-quarter circle in one of the most arresting photographs in the book. Frost frames weather intervention in two more ravishing panels: You may find yourself shaking off raindrops or caught in a blizzard at night, as two house sparrows appear like they are suspended in flight. The one seen on the left is the bird world equivalent of a greasy hair look, while the blizzard loiterer seems to paralyzed. To the poetic cues You’ll pause for a quick conversation/meet wingtip-to-wingtip in flight, Lieder offers up his most enchanting tapestries of all, depicting on the first a “conversation” between a red-bellied woodpecker and a European starling. The posturing resembles a spouse laying the law down to her stoic counterpart. A reunion of sorts is staged in the second airborne convergence between two more starlings. There is a haunting quietude depicting a white-breasted nuthatches that Frost frames in sparing terms: Alone in the sky.
Then in a breathtaking double page spread that evokes the specter of Robert McCloskey’s Make Way For Ducklings a flock of mallard ducks -or flying with friends- are driven by the the most proven of codas- your wings will carry you far. Lieder’s work here transforms a camera capture into something of pictorial elegance and unfettered grace. It is one of his most arresting photos, one imbued with detail and buoyancy. A handsome male northern cardinal adored in fiery red answers the call for Frost’s stitching earth to sky with invisible thread, while a black-capped chickadee is holding up the fort at home in an intimate maze of green pine needles that offers up a shady respite from all the open air flight patterns. In a beautifully designed and informative glossary each of the birds seen in this motivational journey are identified and described, alongside a smaller picture that replicates the way they were seen earlier.
In the end what makes Lieder’s photography so awe-inspiring are the larger-than-life images he conjures up from his equipment. They are so real and full-bodied that you almost think these are really sharply defined illustrations. Frost’s meditative words and Lieder’s magnificent images make for a true match made in heaven. Sweep Up the Sun transports the reader and photography lover to aerial ecstasy. The Caldecott committee may well be experiencing the magic too.
Note: This is the sixteenth 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.