by Sam Juliano
The homey burrow and the star-gazing rabbit seen on the cover of Rebecca Kai Dotlich’s edifying The Knowing Book fleetingly evoke three literary classics – Robert Lawson’s Newbery winning Rabbit Hill, the epic-themed Watership Down by Richard Adams and the Uncle Remus story Brer Rabbit by Joel Chandler Harris. But first impressions -like the arc of the theme in Dotlich’s book- often scatter into disparate directions, and The Knowing Book is as much about rabbits as Sylvester and the Magic Pebble is about donkeys. The solo protagonist of The Knowing Book is more like Chuck Jones’ greatest creation on steroids, though he is one in an endless line of humanized animals who are called on in children’s books to replicate the setbacks and breakthroughs, the mysteries and discoveries, the charges and the retreats of everyday life. Bunnies vie with bears as the the most encored of wildlife denizens in children’s books, and recently we had one in subversive mode in Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett’s Battle Bunny, and another getting spooked in the Caldecott Honor winning Creepy Carrots. Yet the rabbit has always moved with a kind of reckless abandon, seemingly unfettered by even the daily obstacles associated with survival, benign in spirit, temperament and movement and agile enough to change course at the bat of an eyelash.
Dotlich’s hare -closer to the magnanimous spirit of the one in Eric Rohmann’s Caldecott Medal winning My Friend Rabbit – is one that quickly strives to connect with the outside world, immediately establishing the sky above as a matter of eternal permanence, and a starting point for all meditative ruminations and the directions one will ultimately embark upon. Robert Frost urged that we go on a completely different journey, charting our own course, re-inventing ourselves and establishing ourselves as true originals. In the spirit of Frost, Dotlich implores adventurers to grasp the concept of permanence while taking full advantage of the freedom that will define the manner that change the parameters and raise the bar.
The book’s illustrator Matthew Cordell is a veteran of several collaborations and works he has completed solo. His spirited anarchic drawings last year for Philip C. Stead’s Special Delivery ranked among 2015’s most distinguished and this year he is back for a book with a completely different tone and philosophical slant. His sketch board watercolor art for The Knowing Book evinces a metaphysical aura, and in keeping with Dotlich’s New Age histrionics his style throughout is abstract and undisciplined, yet he reaches the essence of the book’s themes by sending a subtle message to his readers that square can be beautiful too. Cordell is one of those artists whose work speaks to children by emulating their own prospective art at a lower grade school age, yet for adults his canvasses are dazzling and suffused with diversity and style – quite a treat for art lovers.
The first abstract panel features our audacious cottontail standing on the top of a hill back turned and on the second and third page he looks up to come full terms with the revelation that the sky has always been there and will always be so. Like death and taxes it is something you can count on. Cordell’s idyllic hamlet is tranquil and carefree with no land boundaries, only a selection process that is introduced when the rabbit with the wind blown pink scarf opens the door to follow a trail, sidewalk or sign.
Right at the outset the ground rules are established by the author: Open a door. Follow a trail or a sidewalk or a sign. Any one of them will take you somewhere. You will choose. Rabbit’s mom and dad look confident their child will choose smartly as he exits a well adorned living room that includes some family photos. He travels through sun and rain but comes to understands a cry is just as important as a hum, both for their comfort capabilities. Then with the broaching of magic and how it could arrive when least expected, Dotlich urges a more rational approach. Cordell fills the sky with infinite color, in the “stuff dreams are made of” mode. Indeed the 1998 fantasy film What Dreams May Come with Robin Williams is summoned with this glowing canvas. When the unknown is pondered rabbit sits on the branch of a tree overlooking a watery expanse playing a tug of war with imagination and who will take the first step. The artist’s curiosity/adventure tapestry is one of the most magnificent in the book – a discordance of shapes and colors, surreal but still tangible when one happily realizes very good things can happen in this life when you allow then to.
The unknown of course requires patience – for the illustrator it is a sphere of nothingness, drawn with the minimalism of a bare tree at the ocean’s edge and that muted aquamarine expanse with faint traces of red as the imagination begins to take hold. Dotlich’s call to carry a map but to remained attuned to the adventure that awaits is interpreted by Cordell in epic terms as the stick-clutching hare embarks on the next, most auspicious part of his journey. Dotlich then brings on the metaphor of Ferdinand the Bull – an immersion in the sublime serenity of the fields, juxtaposed against lightening storms.
Clocks of all shapes and sizes remind the traveler that he must know when to act on a whim or firmed up decision. Then comes a meditative interlude in the field, and the weighing of what is desired vs. what is not desired within the unlimited sphere of the imagination. Cordell conjures up the outlines of many objects dear and alien to one’s hopes or expectations, and follows these fabulous tableaus with delightful vignettes of rabbit sloshing in a puddle, flying a kite or picking up a lost coin or shell. Then, in what can easily be seen as a homage to the 1950 musical-drama classic Young Man with a Horn, rabbit blows into a trumpet, as Dotlich urges readers to listen as this is “the ballad of your own breathing.” Cordell, in what may be the most spectacular spread in the book, offers up an arresting close-up of musical notes and celestial objects in a colorful circular rush to denote freedom of expression. The sky holds a wing, a hoot, a chill, which serves as the poetical framing of rabbit’s return to the burrow, and Cordell celebrates sundown in glorious violet tinged watercolor.
David Lynch’s Inland Empire is spectrally evoked in a breeze swept fever dream canvas where the especially vertical parental rabbits stand in a bedroom doorway as our enterprising crusader absorbs the quiet turbulence through the cracks of a window, though a more sinister undercurrent world replace the positive energy generating here. By this phase of The Knowing Book the connections with the outside world have been established and embraced and the joyful parents proudly watch as the young rabbit gazes up in nocturnal gratification at an expansive sphere of stars on a dark blue canvas. An overhead panorama set in lovely pastel green provides the visual evidence that the final destination of all forays into the unknown will always lead to one’s roots. There’s no place like home says the girl in the ruby slippers. The sky is tangibly inhabited by even larger objects, accentuating the attainment of wisdom. Then the heavens explode in phantasmagorical bliss which is imagined in bombastic terms, the proper measurement of a spiritual epiphany. Cordell, ever adept at knowing precisely what a child might be seeing and thinking simultaneously connects the line of great art with a human lens.
The Knowing Book travels to places and explores themes that few picture books do, and Matthew Cordell’s free-wheeling style is the perfect fit for such an unbridled journey. Not only has he succeeded in giving pictorial wings to Dotlich’s lyrical New Age inspiration, but he’s paved the way for that search for the stars in the most exquisite visual terms. It is a book the Caldecott committee may well be smitten with for both its upbeat message and its achingly beautiful art.
Note: This is the seventh 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.