by Sam Juliano
When I first set eyes on Dan Richards’s and Jeff Newman’s Can One Balloon Make an Elephant Fly? I immediately decided that there was no way it could ever be part of my annual Caldecott Medal Contender series. It appeared to be slight, discombobulated and artistically slapdash, not to mention vaguely derivative. I arrived at this summary conclusion a few months ago when I had secured a few dozen 2016 picture books that were under the radar of various on line review sites. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that there were flashier books in the mix, or that some of the others featured stories of more social urgency, or maybe even that others were more polished. I can’t say for sure, but I subsequently underwent a one-eighty after I read the book to a half dozen first grade classes. This experience allowed for two vital discoveries – one, the kids in each class adored the book, and two I was able to revisit the comic book style illustrations and irresistible lead characters. It is often said that the very best art, music and literature is the kind that doesn’t make the very best first impression. We know this is true of some of Puccini’s operas, Melville’s Moby Dick, and of more recent vintage Simon & Garfunkle’s “The Sound of Silence,” all of which were originally met with indifference or scorn. Many now classic films, like Max Ophuls’ Lola Montes were misunderstood initially and took years before they were regarded as masterpieces. But in the world of children’s books this propensity is common, as some books by their very subject and style don’t invite deafening proclamation, rather their virtues grow at a stately pace after encore sessions and additional discoveries. Yet, it seems the most reliable audience for kids’ books are the kids themselves. The adults will have plenty of time to catch up.
In any event, Richards and Newman have collaborated on one of the year’s most endearing and unique looking picture books. They possess a sharp understanding of a young boy’s passionate resilience and how he succeeds in making his hankerings soar. For starters, the minimalist dust jacket, replicated on the inside cover is one of the most sublime of any picture book released in 2016. The book’s primary color and black ink title is strikingly set in bouncy arrangement on white background to the right of a pachyderm’s trunk being hoisted by a deep red balloon. The charcoal sketch drawings on the front end papers are gritty and saturated, and are aimed at the artistic sensibilities of a young audience, yet repeated appraisal by adult eyes superbly sets the stage for a city zoo, and the exhilarating drama that is about to play out. High rises, office buildings, a smoke stack, bridge, distant sailboat and the green oasis on the other side of the water. A charcoal pencil trail leads from the zoo’s entrance past a young boy and his cell-phone obsessed mom, outside an elephant enclosure, where two grounded bunches of balloons also sit nearby. The continuing path moves past a hippopotamus compound – where two people are watching – and then it snakes up to a gorilla den and giraffe corral, where onlookers look and move on. That’s the brief declaration of setting before the wonderfully creative title page which again features the cover lettering, but this time there is a small voice bubble opening, where the boy poses the question one on one. Mom is not interested in the query at first, so she just answers stoically in the negative. The perplexed lad tries again: “Can two balloons?” Mom retorts “No.” And then, “Three?” By now mom is exasperated: “Evan, please.” Newman’s full front and profiles etched in a delightful abstract comic book flair in chocolate show the boy hopeful and beyond himself. Finally the mother senses the sadness.
But the book’s creators have made quite a damning point about parental supervision in Can One Balloon Make an Elephant Fly?, one that bears an uncanny cautionary parallel in an incident at a Cincinnati zoo when a beloved gorilla named Harambe was killed by police after a boy who was irresponsibly neglected by his parents, ventured in the enclosure. The warning in Can One Balloon is subtle, as Richards is aiming at positive energy, but it can hardly be missed. When mom does understand her child’s despair, she leaps in to save the day, and tells the boy that there can be no question that one balloon can make an elephant fly. Evan is overjoyed, as Newman’s full-faced head sketch so endearingly confirms. Mom takes out her elephant miniature from a zoo souvenir bag and attaches a red balloon to it, knowing full well the laws of gravity will allow for a flying elephant. Evan follows triumphantly, and the glowing real elephant is left behind. The boy then ups the ante, which spells bliss for students on the receiving end of a classroom read aloud. Evan wants to know if two balloons can make a hippopotamus fly, as he is unable to deduce the comparative weights of some of the world’s largest mammals. Mom again visits her magic bag, and secures the balloon strings on the plastic hippo and Evan proposes his own two balloons to a real animal with his colossal mouth wide open.
The balloon test is then given to a family of zebras, and again mom is undaunted by the challenge. Newman’s successive canvasses here are wholly irresistible, and continuing the fabulous sense of pacing and sparing application of the visual objects on the pages. One of my favorite double page canvas documenting event continuity is the vibrantly colored one with the gorilla. First the boy is shown holding a red balloon, while mom has the rest, then the gorilla accepts the one from the boy as mom walks away to tie one of hers on the plastic gorilla. Evan smilingly cups his thump and forefinger to inform the gorilla that all is cool. We then are given another look at the zoo inside the entrance and this time all the animals are sorting balloons on strings, parting presents from Evan who now has assurances to think big. Mom makes sure her son is ready before letting go of the balloons that are allowing the plastic animals to take flight. But the boy is looking in the opposite direction. Mom, not noticing his astonishment from his alternate view tells him “We did it. Aren’t they amazing?”
Evan, seen in close-up hoisted up by his mom, responds “Yeah. Amazing,” but his mom doesn’t see what he and the readers of Can One Balloon can. The balloons are lifting all the real animals up into the air in a marvelous segue into surrealist adventure, which splendidly spills over onto the final end papers, which for the most part echo the earlier ones, but now in a lovely echo of Albert Lamorisee’s 1956 short film The Red Balloon the deepest passion can overcome the laws of gravity. Newman’s art in Can One Balloon Make an Elephant Fly? is imbued with graphic warmth and effervescence and stands as proof parcel that an abstract palette can travel figuratively and literally to places only permitted to those with unlimited imaginations. The book is Caldecott worthy in every sense.
Note: This is the twenty-first entry in the ongoing 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.