by Sam Juliano
Maurice is a young bear with a chronic hankering to find something that others say he must patiently wait for. His first problem is that he doesn’t even really know what the object of his search looks like. His incessant obsession with wanting something that comes only once a year amusingly recalls the short film Elmo Saves Christmas, where our fearless wisher learns his lesson the hard way. In Carin Berger’s Finding Spring the problem is more a case of a young one not knowing the duration of a season. When his mother takes him to pick some berries he triumphantly sings “Spring! Spring!, not realizing the activity is normal during the latter stage of winter. After being assured by his mother that it is exceedingly difficult to wait, and that it is time to sleep, Maurice steals away, vowing to find the object of his queries. The first group he accosts with his silly request do not give him the time of day. The squirrel tells him he may have to wait a while, while the giggling rabbit firmly dismisses him with “Not yet!.” Deer didn’t even respond while eating grass, and Robin sagely declared “Everything in its time.” Maurice proceeds through the woods, which smell “musky”, though he detects something “new and tangy in the air.” He is convinced that the clues are pointing towards Spring, and after he feels an icy sting on his nose and then finds a crystal on his paw, he believes his elusive season is at hand. More and more crystals form and Maurice chases after them past dry leaves, broken branches and over a frozen stream. He reaches the great hill where is finds an atmospheric winter wonderland. Ecstatically he declares his search is over, and declares “S-p-r-i-n-g! S-p-r-i-n-g! I Found Spring! while forming a large snow ball to bring home for verification.
By this time, students who have this book read to them are frantically talking aloud, trying to tell Maurice he is way off the mark. True to the hibernatory practices of his species Maurice sleeps a very long time snuggling up to his mama. When he does wake he finds that everyone has gathered in the meadow, and his snow sample is long melted, inducing him to conclude that spring is gone. Then in a dialogue with some of the forest regulars that recalls “The Bear and the Crow” in Arnold Lobel’s Fables the animals play with the bear’s mind, suggesting the season is very hard to find, and in fact may even be hiding. The squirrel tells him “Sometimes you really have to search.” Maurice then assumes the role of the Pied Piper as he leads them back through the woods, all the while finding all the clues that even the youngest kids should be able to solve. Blooming branches, green buds and a rushing stream all signify change and the gullible bear finally finds a paradise in the clear, where literally Spring is in the air.
Finding Spring suggests that in order to reach the season of choice one must cope with and survive one that is not so easily negotiated. To reach perfection one must emerge from a period of trial and tribulation. Simply posed one must take the bad with the good, though to be fair Berger paints winter as a magical time too. Finding Spring is a plea for experience, and one that discourages immediate gratification without comparative counterpoint. Maurice is a universal symbol of one who not accept the accepted norm. One could laugh at his preposterous notions, but still admire him for his indomitable spirit.
Berger, who has treated children and art lovers to some of the most resplendent picture books over the past decade, specializes in paper collage, which are culled crafting ephemera, including as per the jacket flap as catalogs, old books, receipts, letters, and ticket stubs. Her finest books include the creatively sublime Stardines Swim High Across the Sky, where she wittily interpreted literary icon Jack Prelutsky, the exquisitely colorful The Little Yellow Leaf, and the wholly rapturous Forever Friends. In Finding Spring her vision is kaleidoscope and dream-like. Her initial tapestries chronicle a veritable walk down the yellow brick road, envisioned in arresting abstract terms with exaggerated tree forms hugging the surface in a seasonal limbo. Young Maurice is coaxed by his mother to sleep. His thoughts slowly build to a kind of musical crescendo, with an ornate potpourri of springtime configurations that look like buttons of different sizes sifting through his consciousness. To be sure this is one of Berger’s grandest threads. Still the incorrigible red-scarfed bear cub is undaunted in his quest to find the calendar’s most rejuvenating season, and Berger responds with an intimidating forest spread featured in towering trees that look like columns.
The subsequent work in miniature applied on an eight square spread lovingly showcases the varying shades of green, to color our undaunted adventurer’s intended sphere. The forest creatures are seen as specters, all lovingly mounted in silhouette. After passing through a brooding pine tree dimension with a touch of New Age temperament, we are dazzled by enlarged circular crystals borders by the curving typography. The hunt for more crystals is staged in five panels that appear strikingly avante garde. And then when Spring is finally shown in all its sensory grandeur, we finally understand the real meaning of the phrase “flowers are in the air.” The reward for Maurice is utter exhilaration, one that recalls the young boy in The Red Balloon being whisked off into the air by the balloons of Paris. Finding Spring is a celebration of life that deserves major scrutiny from the Caldecott committee.
Note: This is the seventeenth 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.