by Sam Juliano
There are some rare instances where you find that a picture book is so impeccably crafted and meticulously negotiated that you conclude you are looking at something indefectible. Such is the case with Float by Daniel Miyares, a work about one fleeting endeavor in a young boy’s life that appears to raise the bar in an artist’s insatiable quest for perfection. Float is a wordless book – that no longer rare phenomenon in the publishing industry where illustrators summon their artistic skills to replace the power of words with the dynamism of images. What is rare is the wordless picture book that is so flawlessly executed that it makes you think words would have negatively impacted the vision. Other than the book’s title – a word that economically defines this pictorial tone poem- there isn’t even a reference to language aside from the illegible newsprint on paper material that is used to create the object that does what the title infers. Taking the place of a descriptive writer, the illustrator must be attuned to facial expression, posture, the thrall of weather, the application of color to define a mood, abstract form to heighten an event, and the full gamut of emotions. Wordless books follow the tenets of the silent cinema, where the experience is totally visual, without a trace of the interplay that informs some of the finest collaborations. The illustrator is left with a formidable task, and Miyares appears to have risen to the challenge with a book that will excite and move the youngest while perhaps tempting those older to ally their skills at creativity. His art was created digitally.
The book’s sleek and elegant dust jacket cover highlights the mise en scene. A boy clad in yellow rain gear is floating a paper boat in a street puddle as rain falls. There is a striking reflection of a nearby house in the water, and the drab gray color scheme denotes the overcast, dreary day. A partial close-up of that cherished vassal of a child’s fantasy is mounted on the inside hardcover with just enough color to allow it to arise above the non-descript, but less than what would be needed to achieve a happy resolution.
The first double page spread features four parental hands constructing a paper boat from a newspaper that features real boats. Those who have already examined the opening end papers will definitely harbor an idea as to engineer the simple steps that will allow this makeshift fluff to move on the water. The boy is first seen at the top pf the steps surveying the in-climate sky and in the continuance panel he holds his boat aloft while traveling the length of a white wooden fence. His reaction to the restart of the rain runs the gamut from concern, to exhilaration and then to the need to protect his vulnerable play toy. Then he is atmospherically regaled by the proverbial ‘it’s raining cats and dogs,’ which is visualized by slightly diagonal bar strokes of white and gray-brown. Behind this watery maze is our yellow marauder, hoping to weather the storm. Miyares offers up an encore to the dust jacket cover in the very next tapestry where the rain has subsided and the boy first experiments with the desired movement in a pond. The reflection, witnessed by a bird is stunning. The boy then triumphantly frolics through puddles in a quartet of progressive movement drawings, as he prepares to set his makeshift vessel on the water.
Again Miyares features a quartet of the boy setting up for the float. In the final image the boat begins to accelerate. The boy sees how far it has gone down the street and dashes after it. In one dazzling spread which superbly visualizes the adage “so close, yet so far” the boy agonizes as he splashes down the street passing manicured suburban homes trying to gain ground on the accelerating paper boat. The boy is seen at a street crossing, trying to spot his fragile runaway. In the second of the two horizontal panels he is partially headed in the right direction only to be horrified to see it nearing the opening of a sewer. He arrives too late as it disappears into blackness, yet he is resourceful enough to follow the path of the water under a bridge and finally to the sewer pipe where he reclaims near the rocks with a stick his waterlogged object. Teary-eyed, the boy recalls the young French boy in Albert Lamorisee’s 1956 The Red Balloon, who also bonded with an inanimate object, and was devastated by its destruction. As the rain again begins to fall, symbolically denoting loss, the boy makes his way home, again passing the white fence and then to the front door, holding the remains of his boat where he is greeted by his parents, who embrace him and remove his wet clothes and dry his hair.
Morning coffee and newsprint has the boy smiling again, but this time the object of his gleeful engagement won’t be aquatic, but aeronautic, necessitated not only be a new creation but by the glorious sunny day he opens the door to. The adage “there is a light at the end of the tunnel” has been confirmed with an uplifting burst of exhilaration. The back end papers too are fully attuned to the new mode with the corresponding instructions. Miyares’ great achievement in this instant classic is how he navigates a child’s mind, pointedly exploring a kid’s emotional connection to something meaningless to everyone else, and documenting complex emotions like fear, sorrow and loss. It is one thing to have a great idea, but yet another to see it fully realized on the highest artistic plane. Others have compared his work rightfully to that of Ezra Jack Keats, a beloved minimalist artist who also depicted kids engaging in weather suffused activities that were for them the center of the universe. Miyares’ metaphorical employment of yellow on a neutral background achieves the height of contrast. There can be little doubt at this point that Float is sitting in that final short pile of books, ready to be annointed rain or shine.
Note: This is the twenty-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.