by Sam Juliano
There can be nothing more disconcerting to a young child than finding out that their latest book find is well beyond their sphere of negotiation. The exasperated yellow duckling with the pink beak in veteran artist Sergio Ruzzier’s latest innovative creation, This is Not a Picture Book is initially ecstatic when he comes upon a book with a bright red cover. Soon enough the anticipated eye candy is exposed as a tome, one indecipherable to an ankle-biter, whose sphere of enlightenment has up until now been in the most stringent visual terms. Gloriously framing this pained encounter between this impressionable tyke and the latest step in learning are the first set of end papers that reveal that words by themselves are indecipherable at the earliest stage, in fact they project to said prospective reader the futility of a foreign language. After the exclamatory titular pronouncement on the double page spread that sets off the deceit with Duck Amuck bravado our offended protagonist rejects his latest acquisition, rethinks his action, and finally atones in a series of delightful vignettes that make striking use of white space. The duckling picks up the book again and is approached by a cricket who asks “What is that?” The duckling repeats the central dilemma, and the cricket deems it “Wacky” and asks if his new friend is able to read it. Surprisingly the duckling doesn’t rule out the possibility just before the book enters a new dimension.
Ruzzier, the Italian born classicist who is unwaveringly in the Caldecott hunt for the fourth consecutive year has produced what is probably his picture book masterpiece, and by any artistic and conceptual barometer of measurement one of the finest works of 2016. Like all the best creations, This is Not A Picture Book is thought-provoking, elegant, and invested with the most vital, if rudimentary measure of advocacy for our youngest readers. The book celebrates the power of reading and the unlimited boundaries of the imagination. Once again Ruzzier’s colorful and sumptuous otherworldly tapestries evoke a European sensibility and some of his eccentric carnival scenes envision the surrealist cinema master Alejandro Jodorowsky, though framing the art as Felliniesque seems just as appropriate.
The transition from the nondescript world where a book is being considered to the actual visualization is made possible by the crossing of a log into rapturous places populated by zany objects and creatures, once there is literary engagement. At first our reluctant adventurer laments the difficulty in brokering wordplay in a markedly alien confection of unorthodox gadgets and bloated objects, but he is emboldened when he realizes that he knows some of the words after all and sees each in this eerily beautiful landscape – a bee, a flower, mountains and clouds. Even his cricket companion is invigorated by the new revelations. Among one of the most idiosyncratic arenas one is likely to find in picture books our fearless marauder finds a bevy of comical configurations among some of the more conventional objects such as a hat, a feather, a flower pot, bubbles, a hatching egg, bull-horned nose, sun glasses, and minimalist rock formations. Soon enough though, the war-ravaged landscape of burning, gutted buildings, broken trees and bomb holes glaringly remind our developing bookworms that sorrow and gloom are part of life. Ruzzier’s muted, washed out tan and pink watercolors brings this sorry vista to full fruition.
The escape hatch on the lower right is in the form of a small rowboat which leads to what is arguably the most arresting illustration in the book, and one of the artist’s best ever. The code word is wild and the scene is one of stormy sea green turbulence with splashy white wave crests that are shaped like ominous limbs trying to reach the seafaring duo. The picture is three-dimensional and is fueled by illustrative propulsion. The boat is nearly toppled over as the duckling stays the course turning pages while the cricket clinging to the corner of the boat seems certain that all is lost. Then in a tranquil tapestry that evokes Leo Politi, sky and water have gone into peaceful mode. Our reader unwinds in literary bliss while his partner emotes a measure of contentment. Even the fish and the bird are joyous in a scene that recalls the day after flood that destroyed the world and everything on it with the exception of Noah’s Ark. Again the watercolor magic that creates this indelible scene is forged the interlacing of pastel pinks, blue and blue-green and white, with marvelous splashes of yellow and green for the creatures and the backgrounds. Then there is a Red Balloon mode of transport – All these words carry you away – when our now erstwhile excursionists are hoisted into the air by a storkish bird as inspired by the omnipresent words as duckling continues to read, with cricket holding on.
Suddenly the air borne creature lets go and after an atmospheric tumble the words transport these imaginative denizens to a cozy bedroom, lined on one wall by a duel level shelf occupied by a wide array of books, that are destined for posterity. Our urbane marauders how now come to understand the power, the all-encompassing geographical capabilities and potential of the written word and the books that permanently ensconce them as they unwind contented in a sitting position. Ruzzier actively employs his end papers – flat out most imaginative of any picture book this year, ironic or otherwise- as active accomplices in this thinly masked homage to the joys of reading. Ditto for his exquisite cover and dust jacket, where words relate the experience within by delightful paraphrasing. For sure Ruzzier’s most brilliant idea was to transform the closing end papers into a handsome two page run of typography that lovingly encapsulates the book’s narrative to allow this entire venture to come full circle. After the seemingly on location visual perception, a word description in splendid prose recounts not only what transpired but also through an irresistible journey how words in the end are not dependent on pictures. Unless of course those pictures were drawn by Ruzzier, one of the industry’s most renowned and prolific talents. While the implications of reading as an independent experience are abundantly clear, words and pictures, working together playing off one another and expanding the medium provide for the most enriching experience of all.
The creator of the charming story of forgetfulness, Have You Seen My New Blue Socks?, the melancholic tale of friendship, A Letter For Leo and last year’s counting book in miniature, Two Mice, Ruzzier has brought elements of each into a work of exceeding craftsmanship right down to picturing the literary metamorphosis of the characters before and after the revelation amidst the typography. It is sincerely hoped this year’s committee will opt to honor such a sublimely conceived conceptual book by one of the nation’s most renowned artists. My sentiments tell me he is long overdue.
Note: This is the fourth entry in the 2016 Caldecott Medal Contender series. The series does not purport to predict what the committee will choose, rather it attempts to gauge what the writer feels should be in the running. In most instances the books that are featured in the series have been touted as contenders in various online round-ups, but for the ones that are not, the inclusions are a humble plea to the committee for consideration. It is anticipated the series will include at least 30 titles; the order which they are being presented in is arbitrary, as every book in this series is a contender. Some of my top favorites of the lot will be done near the end. The awards will be announced on January 22nd, hence the reviews will continue till two days before that date.