by Sam Juliano
Parting is such sweet sorrow.
Aside from a tragic passing there can be no more traumatic event in a young person’s life than the heartbreak caused by relocation. While the emotional sting of separation almost always represents a temporary setback -there are after all new relationships to be made- it nonetheless provokes despair and desolation. The way to combat this time of emotional upheaval is often the same way people deal with other unexpected or unwelcome happenings – to be creative, to remember and honor all the wonderful times shared, in short to work diligently to keep the friendship alive by maintaining communication. Jessixa Bagley’s Before I Leave initially presents this wrenching theme as a fearful proposition, one fraught with skepticism that even positive energy may be unable to dim. Bagley came to the project with big shoes to fill, as the book represents the follow up her debut Boats For Papa, a rapturous and deeply moving masterpiece about love and loss that was said to be a likely Caldecott Medal or Honor nominee in the hugely competitive 2015 calendar year. Yet the talented author-illustrator from the Pacific Northwest refused to lighten up, and came back with another provocative, poignant and melancholic theme, one as universal and topical as her prior work.
Almost as if to emphasize that camaraderie can be shared and cherished by anyone regardless of physical limitations, Bagley’s two inseparable friends include the mammal considered to be the ugliest species on Earth – the ant eating aardvark, whose claim to fame has always been that he is the dictionary’s first entry. Then there’s the much smaller companion, the hedgehog who won’t be winning any animal beauty contests either. These two unlikely amigos, one with a cute green bow and another with a long elastic tongue that is the envy of every chameleon on the planet, are first seen fishing on a quaint wooden bridge which sits atop a stream in a forest clearing. Aaron, the scourge of every ant colony within his domain, doesn’t need a fishing rod in view of his freakish proclivity. One turn of the page and the reader understands the coming demise of these idyllic activities. Zelda’s family bungalow, a well-constructed mound of tree branches in the realm of tree-climbing squirrels and bird nests has been sold. The tearful transference of this unconscionable news is framed in a splendid brown color tunnel configuration, with the two friends at one end, and the hedgehog parents on the others removing portraits from the wall and packing boxes. In the follow-up canvas Aaron joins in the woeful task, helping to gather up books, papers and smaller items, while Zelda, fulfilling her mother’s order, is pulling on a suitcase. Bagley opens up the pictorial constrictions in a full bittersweet panel of Aaron trying to wedge himself into the suitcase, as Zelda, squished behind it, tells him that he is isn’t allow to go with them. Zelda’s bedroom shows her as one art inclined, with books, drawings, art supplies, buttons and objects all set to transport. Bagley’s lovely soft watercolor pastel illustrations here and throughout the book pay homage to that sumptuous style employed in Boats For Papa. Zelda is initially obstinate, as she stretches out on her packed suitcase, telling her parents she doesn’t want to go without Aaron. (Bagley’s chosen name for the hedgehog’s friend and Zelda’s propensity for art bring in some charming autobiographical elements from the artist’s life).
But as the reality of the dire situation sets in with the sustained packing, Zelda enlists Aaron to follow her, in a domestic stroll denoted by the words Before I Leave. The spunky hedgehog hankers for some playtime to as a kind of defiant proclamation that nothing has changed. The still jolted Aaron is more than game, though he oversteps his enthusiasm by extending that Guinness World Book of Records tongue across the wide patch of grass practically reaching Zelda, but dousing her with water drops. The merriment continues in some of the book’s happiest and most beautifully drawn vignettes. The two take turns hitting a yellow ball tied to a tree, swinging together on a branch and on the water, with Aaron as oarsman. The two also engage in a Baby Boomer favorite, talking into tin cans connected by string in a simulated walkie-talkie like conversation. This irresistible forest tapestry connecting a treehouse and wooden shelter is a gem and truly captures the intimate friendship that all of the sudden is threatened with cessation. But just as wonderful is the irreverent ice cream excursion when Aaron oversteps his bound bringing that tongue of his to bear on the high jacking of a chocolate scoop from Zelda’s cone, though his own already has a triple decker of strawberry, pistachio and vanilla. This is kind of moment that no doubt intimates that there isn’t anything Zelda wouldn’t do to have another opportunity for Aaron to pilfer her ice cream cone. For Bagley, the multi-colored spread projects a kind of aching bliss, falling somehow in a limbo of emotional detachment.
When the realization sets in as Zelda is propelled in a one-sided bounce of a see-saw the more ominous implications set in: I’m scared to go./But you say it will be okay,/and you’ll see me soon./But I’m not so sure. Aaron gestures goodbye as Zelda stands in her doorway for the very last time in another fabulous looking forest spread, with noticeably darker hues. Bagley’s negotiation of perspective is superlative in the oval canvas of the actual departure, an animal variation of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard’s final farewell at the train station in David Lean’s 1945 Brief Encounter, though distinctly pastoral with the flowers, grass and birds in flight. After just a few hundred feet Aaron perceives the distance in fatalistic terms. Bagley’s delightful depiction of the hedgehog family transport, a wooden contraption on wheels carrying the boxes and Zelda away gives the bracing scene some much needed levity. In their new home -and yeah, who could argue the decor has indeed been upgraded with refreshingly green and airy surroundings- Zelda unpacks to discover the unbridled joy of pictures and notes from Aaron, telling his dear friend how much he will miss her, and recounting with exceeding fondness some of those Polaroid moments of the fun they shared in the fort, treehouse and on the water. This proof of the best times are hung on an indoor clothes line, brings Aaron’s specter into the home, as Zelda pens a first-day-of-school letter intending to send to off. A poignant reminder of their prior chats is embodied in the talking apparatus, with one can in the room, with attached string curling through the open window. Before I Leave is drenched in nostalgia, with the front end papers showcasing seasonal activities, and the back displaying Aaron’s crayon etched interpretation. The front and back cover forge a picture of friendship through the objects and places they spent time in and around.
By most opinions and accounts, Bagley came very close to Caldecott recognition last year. With Before I Leave she has again struck an emotional nerve with readers, simultaneously suffusing her art with that now trademark delicate watercolor palette that transcribes a story dominated by wistfulness, memory and nostalgia. Her art is again sublime and evocative and is fully entitled to the committee’s magnifying glass treatment.
Note: This is the thirty-sixth 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.