by Sam Juliano
Writer’s block. There is nothing more deadly to the seasoned purveyor of prose or poetry than that which thwarts or derails the flow of ideas. For some who profess to the chronic nature of this affliction, they see themselves pictured on a dartboard negotiated by a mischief loving angel in a playroom a short distance beyond the pearly gates. When this winged seraph (they loved Poe’s identification) is successful in guiding a dart to its intended destination, the victim immediately is maligned with an acute case of mindlessness, the mental equivalent of what that poor girl in David Shannon’s A Bad Case of Stripes went through after contracting a bizarre syndrome. The irony of those with the wilder imaginations though is that while conjuring up all these conspiracy theories they are projecting just the kind of invention that they could be employing towards their current assignments. Of course that is precisely the deceit of Phillip C. Stead’s spectacularly beautiful and creatively wrought Ideas Are All Around, a picture book memoir that that leaves writer’s block barely able to leave the front gate as a strangely conspicuous blue horse gallops away. Mr. Stead, an author-artist with a limitless arsenal of ideas has enriched a simple premise into a resonating day long adventure, one that embraces memories, the needy, anti-war sentiments and philotherianism all under the limitless imagination ready to be unleashed by the keys of a typewriter. The book’s gorgeous dust jacket features the central symbol of creativity, the impressionist blue horse. The intrepid dog Wednesday is seen scurrying across over the title, colored from everyday hues from the outside world. The inside cover presents the places, plant life, street signs and Smith Corona that are all part of the making of the book. Wednesday is seen in five of the eighteen vertical photos. A stunning yellow-orange sunflower is pictured in a full page drawing across from a photo of it, and a lamentation from the author that it was the only one to sprout from a packet of seeds they were planted.
Wednesday first appears in an irresistible close-up illustration in front of the sun, where Stead reveals the dog is no fan of him sitting at the typewriter (for obvious reasons). But in this case taking her out for a walk serves as a springboard for the ideas that will flow at each stop. The first is a “painted turtle” named Frank who sits in “a pocket of sunshine” The author says hello, but acknowledges that the regular response is a retreat into the water, to which Stead says goodbye. Touchingly the author adds: Someday I hope he (Frank) looks forward to these smidgeons of time we share. The idea is that the author and Frank are part and parcel to life’s experiences. A photo of lily pads where turtles wallow appears opposite Frank on strip of earth. Salutations from Barbara lead up the next lovely spread of a blue house, highlighted among white silhouettes of other homes that are not part of this personal connection. Indeed the author says he lived on the top floor of the house where Barbara now stands. The woman actually lives in a house to the rear where she tends to all the pets she owns – two dogs, three cats and an aquarium loaded with tropical fish. Stead recalls tripping on the front steps one time which caused a can of blue paint to fly out of his hands. But Barbara was thrilled at the imprint it made – that of a blue horse. The illustration of this glowing figment is unbridled joy for the reader and proof that the imagination hasn’t a cut off point. After agreeing to plans to stop by Barbara’s house later, the author beholds ducks floating down the river, but they balk at the opening he gives then when he admits he hasn’t any ideas. Then Stead and Wednesday encounter the words “Stop War” in spray paint on the boardwalk and the author admits the concept is a very good one. He asks a tall bird near the reeds, but Wednesday’s encroachment sends it off into the air.
A fabulous train spread is next up, one that recalls the illustration in the Steads’ Caldecott Medal winning A Sick Day for Amos McGee when the bus with all the animals was seen on the road heading to visit their beloved zookeeper. Within the depth of Stead’s imagination he envisions Wednesday, Frank and one of the ducks speeding off to places like Chicago, Omaha and Seattle, while simultaneously warning Wednesday to stay clear of tracks after hearing the dings. But Stead admits his own guilt on this dangerous practice and states that if they followed they may well end up in Cleveland, Baltimore and the Big Apple, as the bottom border depicts train tracks and the main drawing a splendid depiction of the Empire State Building. But reality sinks in as Stead and Wednesday trek past a school and a purple house, followed by a stop at the line waiting to gain access to a soup kitchen administered by St. Andrew’s Church. All the attention is on Wednesday. One man in a wheelchair scratches her behind the ear while mentioning he once owned a dog just like her. The author looks up at the blue sky perhaps to gain further inspiration, but what is happening on the ground speaks volumes. The eighteen photos of the sky, all but one of the nebulous variety, are either clear or adored with wires or electrical towers.
The author relates an anecdote about the time he purchased his typewriter from a man with think glasses after resolving to spend some time on it as it provides some fun “even when there is nothing to say.” Of course there is irony in that statement much as there is in the entire book, which overflows with imagination by way of evidence and speculation. The owner of the store tells Stead he never had a favorite machine among all those he repaired, using the example of horses and their disparate personalities. Then Wednesday is on to something, as she pulls on the leash. She seems to sense that blue horse, the metaphor for creativity passing through. A further impetus for how imagination often avails itself is the way vision and hearing work off each other. Stead admits he can hear birds but can’t see them, meaning he must contemplate their appearance. He compares the sound of the black-capped chickadee with the sound he makes when he calls Wednesday back from a squirrel chase. Speaking of a squirrel chase another is afoot. The author yells “Wednesday, wait” but the dog is onto the prints of the caballo azul, the book’s symbol of revelations. With the minimalist application of blue and yellow, Stead a master of space, creates a breathtaking canvas. Wednesday and her frustrated master arrive at Barbara’s, whereupon it is mentioned again that ideas are non-existent on this day. The woman tells him not to worry as “ideas are all around.” One of the steps leading to the house showcases an old friend.
While Wednesday keeps her eyes and ears primed for her favorite prey, Barbara talks about the skunk living in the cellar. Stead’s utterly irresistible illustration -one of the loveliest in the book- shows the scraggly creature leaning over to drink from a very red cup. Barbara’s avowed friendship with the skunk recalls that between a man and this pungent creature in last year’s delightful The Skunk by Mac Barnett and Patrick McConnell, though Barbara -animal lover and all- is being facetious. They talk about Frank, canoes, birdcalls and typewriters. And about going paces on trains. But the darker themes alluded to earlier in the book are there, and not likely to go away anytime soon. People in need of food and global warfare are a scourge on humanity. Stead’s red illustration of a warplane and fish figures is powerful. Barbara tells her idea-strapped friend that her front yard was once the bottom of a lake. A tiny description of the Empire State Building appears upside down in the grass green band across the bottom, and the implication is clear enough. She adds that giant tiny fish swam in herds like buffalo. “And before that were the woolly mammoths.” Stead’s next work is telegraphed in that comment in the same way that David Weisner’s Tuesday was followed by The Three Pigs. The woolly mammoth has joined the procession of characters encountered in Ideas Are All Around. These “ghosts” as Stead calls them will spur on some serious typewriter action.
Ideas Are All Around bursts with creativity in every aspect of it’s presentation. That it is an outgrowth of the narrative’s steadfast notion that ideas are hard to connect with makes it ironically satisfying, but the prime reason why it is a bookmaking treasure is the aesthetic chemistry between photos and drawings, and the manner the book bridges the forms with with quietly moving prose. It is another unqualified triumph for Stead and should be among the small stack of finalists during Caldecott deliberations. It is one of my own supreme favorite books of 2016.
Note: This is the forty-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 50 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 23rd, hence the reviews will continue till two days before that date.