by Sam Juliano
Deborah Freedman’s Shy is the most metaphysical picture book of 2016. It is also unique in that the prime allure of its captivating art are alternating hues that are attuned to the various settings and climates traversed by our incognito protagonist and the lovely purveyor of song that brings him out of his self-imposed limbo. Children of course will be hankering to know the identity of this book spine stowaway, but those of any age who come upon this most unusual of works will find the color washes exotic and intoxicating, almost setting aside the book’s indelible mystery. Of course Freedman never allows the delicate, minimalist narrative to divorce itself from the shadings that define place and atmosphere far more compellingly than straightforward drawings. This is the kind of picture picture book that Terrence Malick might come up with, but the talented Ms. Freedman has brought a wholly new dimension in creating a book that gives the full spectrum of color a vigorous workout.
The basic mise en scene is established in the opening spread: Shy was happiest between the pages of a book. A curving arrow leads from that statement to the book’s spine, where this most extreme of introverts learns all about the world through books. Much like Henry Bemis of The Twilight Zone’s most celebrated episode “Time Enough At Last”, a bookish bank teller who revels in spending all his free time hidden in an underground bank vault reading the classics, the object of Shy’s title is more than happy and content to learn about the world from the most claustrophobic of vantage points. In the end Freedman’s enigmatic cross between Boo Radley and Bilbo Baggins undergoes an acute metamorphosis, moving from self-imposed shackles to the most adventurous of free spirits. Freedman’s Dawn of Man opening is etched in muted yellow, with only the faintest light brown tracks to denote internal activity. There is a distinct air of serenity in this hue, one any celestial entity would be loathe to intrude upon. In the second canvas a pile of books, categorized in the text as fantasy adventures are visible. The books Shy loved the most were about birds, though of course the prime allure of these graceful air borne creatures is their singing. In any open book showcasing the blue sky, a yellow bird glides. At least Shy can negotiate the jeweled colors and acceleration.
Then, almost inevitably, a day of reckoning arrived. A yellow bird riding on the crest of bubbles and musical notes trilled by. Freedman envisions this arrival in the simplest terms without pictorial ostentation, an occurrence consistent with the probabilities of nature. The bird’s musical coda treep treep troo-lee! provided a burst of enchantment the unidentified kindred spirit found wholly irresistible. The color wash bubble bonanza on the page is akin to a glorious day following one gloomy and overcast. Alas, Shy did not know how to respond. What if he stuttered like Ken Pile in A Fish Called Wanda or Smiley in Do the Right Thing? Definitely this was no way to endear himself to anyone. And if he blushed the encounter would almost certainly be a failure. The pause came with the stiffest price. The bird abandoned its perch on the pile of books and flew off, troo-lee-lee-lee. Freedman relates that Shy is quaking in his boots to follow, but there has never been a precedence. Reading about a land far away is one thing, but actually resolving to physically negotiate it is quite another. But Shy is determined and for the very first time ever he leaves home. Freedman gives readers a clue, albeit a slight one to Shy’s identity with tracks. Shy travels a long distance, first through a desert terrain, then past a towering mountain chain and then on a plain where he sees other creatures. By now first time readers will notice that Freedman has revealed who Shy is from among a small group. This cadre of land mammals follow the intoxicating sound of the birds, and Shy wonders of one of these beautifully colored sky cruisers is his own.
In a spectacularly buoyant tapestry of an owl and other birds in flight, the majestic bird of treep treep troo-lee! fame is seen and heard. One of Freedman’s most rapturous metaphorical passages defines this epiphany: She sparkled! Just like the sun…and the sea…Shy had never imagined the world was so grand. As to the stunning canvas that brings visual definition to these words, it is a veritable symphony of land, sky and ocean and one of the book’s frame-worthy nominees. Still shielding Shy from conclusive specification, the author offers up a glorious reddish sky at the moment of impending communication, but just as quickly the door is shut. Freedman’s version of a sudden trip from euphoria to heartbreak is a grainy purple with obscured celestial spheres barely discernible and a distinct picture of what nothingness might look like in the mind’s eye. Much like the gutted weasel in Sergio Ruzzier’s A Letter For Leo, who is convinced his own bird friend is lost forever after migratory relocation Shy has reason to believe all is lost in needle-in-a-haystack mode. Speaking of Ruzzier, Freedman’s impressionist art bears a striking kinship to the Brooklyn creator of this year’s This is Not A Picture Book, one that honors the richest imaginations of its readers with the ever-difficult task of ascribing visual suggestiveness.
Shy is unable to sleep and re-reads all the bird books he owns. He considers that he has traveled to far away places, is ravished by having seen “birds colored like jewels…birds faster than the wind” and he engages in wishful thinking that the books could sing. treep treep troo-lee. In violet wash Shy hears those magical words again. They are real, heard and then silenced. By then Shy knows he must act or risk losing her again. Then comes the unveiling on the double page spread, pages 31-32 of this 38 page book. The giraffe, in temperament a perfect choice for this title role calls out into the heavens: twheep! twheep! twheeeep! Much like the flounder responding to the fisherman who called out to him for another favor, this seemingly omnipresent yellow bird appears, but Shy is initially taken aback, and whispers that he is shy. But after “Florence” positions herself against one of Shy’s legs the impasse is history and the two become captivated by each other. She reads in homage to the creature who brought new meaning to his life:
Once upon a time, in a land far away, by the edge of a sea, there was a bird.
Florence begs for more and in a rapturously kaleidoscopic wash dotted by springtime bubbles the two idyllically venture forth to the most heavenly sound of all: twheep! twheep! troo lee-lee-lee….
Shy is one of the year’s most imaginative and beautiful books. Could there be any further reasons why it should be sitting among that final short stack on the committee members’ desks?
Note: This is the thirty-ninth 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.