by Sam Juliano
There is a sense of pictorial contentment on the dedication page of Patrick Downes’s Come Home Angus, as our soon to be bi-polar youthful protagonist holds on to his dachshund via a leash, while his feline watches attentively. The cute boy Angus sports Eastern European facial features -a very young Roman Polanski is a hard image to shake – which makes sense since the picture book’s illustrator Boris Kulikov is a Russian-American. Scarlet for the boy’s shirt, sneaker and leash, and the red letters of the inscription allow for a winsome opening panel but by the very first turn of the page we appear to have some Kafkian machinations at play, which by the second page morph into something more Swiftian, specifically the land of Brobdingnag. But a spiraling emotion like anger can surely trigger a growth spurt. Heck, Tex Avery knew that well enough when he created his satiric cartoons, some where the characters grew as a result of some out of control emotion. One can’t help but think of “King Sized Canary” when the cat and canary grow after application of some formula since one of Angus’s pets is a canary named Pennycake. Angus gets up on the proverbially wrong side of the bed, and as a result everything is done wrong by his pets. Even the cat Arthur is chastised for purring too loud. In any event, an acute psychological state of mind is translated visually on that first bedroom panel when everything in the room -the bureau, the wall photos, the lamp and even the sun itself are upside down. Angus may not exactly fit the extreme profile of Gregor Samsa, but some drastic revisions seem to be in order.
The manner in which Angus is drawn- in a seemingly vulnerable cross pattern- immediately suggests that anything or everything can crumble to pieces at any time. The composition is fraught with urgency; Kulikov envisions his overheated boy at a breaking point, like a glass china figure that has developed cracks, but is obstinately refusing to break apart. Kulikov’s mastery of facial expression produces some gems: Angus, with fingers in ears reprimands Pennycake, shakes his finger at the terrified calico for having the temerity to purr, cupping one of his hands over his chin, head scraping the ceiling, while absorbing a reprimand from his mother for his inordinately fowl mood, and his refusal to eat the “skinny” pancakes. Downes then takes his situational story to a drastic turn when Angus yells at his mother, informing her in no uncertain terms that his anger has reached the boiling point and he won’t listen to her anymore. Furthermore, he declares “I don’t have to be nice”. After his mother challenges him by reiterating the house rules that exclude rudeness, Angus departs, after gathering together a number of items including his stuff gorilla Snoo, his security blanket of choice. The vignettes Kulikov presents are irresistible – Angus with his eyes shut grabs underwear, socks, a flashlight and a book, working each into his backpack and leaves the house with a trace of regret, but undiminished resolve. He tells his mother that she won’t miss him after she states that she will. Kulikov’s saturated wall colors -and it is to noted that the style used for all the art in this book as per assertion on the copyright page is mixed media including an acrylic wash, graphite pencil, pen, ink, and oil pastels- is created by the use of a black tea wash, and the results are stunning.
The demotion of Angus comes quickly as he makes his way out the door and down the street. In a series of marvelous vignettes he seems to have traveled from Brobdingnag to Lilliput in just a matter of minutes, as he stops, a comparative blip next to a sky scraper. (Oh, that rainbow wash to create the clouds!) Of course as fully expected his devoted mom isn’t far behind. An arresting ground level double page canvas shows Angus in a place he has never been before, place that Downes describes as unfamiliar: “Only store; no houses. The streets were busier, noisier, wider, darker.” There is a pale and garish look to the figures of the people and the posters that serves to accentuate this spectral scene. Looking exceptionally small (is there a more impressive study of illustrative scale than this book in 2016?) Angus rustles in his backpack to find a sardine sandwich, but he had forgotten to bring it. A man and a dog sent a wave and a wag his way but he is too preoccupied and and humbled to even notice. The city’s mass of people is even underlined by the name of a new musical show titled “Many People”. By now Angus is shown without pictorial ostentation – it is the others who are drawn in cross pattern, as are the buildings no doubt to depict the hectic pace on the streets, as people moved from all directions to reach their intended locations.
A big boned woman has taken her place on the other side of the bench and Angus meekly watches her wolf down a sandwich, lettuce hanging out of her mouth. Others with ice cream cones and sodas pass by, and by now Angus realizes nobody cares an iota about him. Everyone is involved in their own pursuits. Truly, as the girl with the red ruby slippers famously said, there’s no place like home. Angus had enough and wanted to return. As if he had his wish granted, his mother -who of course was keeping watch unobtrusively- arrived on cue to ask her homesick son if he were ready to again take up residence in their house, to which the boys happily nods. Clive and Arthur are quite thrilled with the prospect too, and a dove flies by to signal this blissful rapprochement. The mass of people now shown in sketches are even more upbeat. The big emotional reunion scene as mom holds Angus in one arm, and a sardine sandwich in a paper bag with the other evokes the euphoric finale of The Red Balloon , with boy passionately hugging mom, dog jumping, cat gloating, dove soaring by, back pack flung off, and stuffed animal seemingly relieved. The painting is a humanist gem, and a well-deserved emotional payoff for this ingratiating baptism under fire tale. The final panel is no less wonderful as the famished boy devours a sandwich, even if it is wrong on two counts, it is on wheat and it is mushy. Sometimes it takes a bad experience to amplify the security and well-being in one’s life, and Angus has learned a lesson of contrast.
Come Home, Angus is a dazzling, stylish and brilliantly executed picture book. Each illustration is a keeper, the story runs the full gamut of emotions and the employment of scale is extraordinary. Kulikov is quite simply a master. As such the book deserves very close scrutiny from the Caldecott committee. This is one of my personal five favorite picture books of the year. I’d like to note that the author Julie Danielson wrote a fabulous appreciation of Come Home, Angus in the “Calling Caldecott” series at The Horn Book on October 13th.
Note: This is the thirtieth 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 in the neighborhood of around 40 to 45 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.