by Sam Juliano
It happened again. In the four years I have written the Caldecott Medal Contender series there is always at least one title that doesn’t grab me initially, but when it does kick in the appreciation is cathartic. Mind you the first connection with the book yielded multiple aesthetic dividends, and the concept was and remains rather ingenious, but there was something about the liberal use of white space that bothered me. Perhaps I expected a brisker narrative pace or the mastery of that subtle picture book component regularly exhibited by Jon Klassen. Or perhaps I may have been too impatient that day to sort out the insect language that was ushered in on the cover in grand style by way of one of the largest of voice bubbles. But Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis in scheme alone requires far more than a cursory exploration. Anything less than that is likely to result in a fragile opinion imminently doomed to reversal as soon as some extended scrutiny is offered up. The final conclusion after a more intensive exploration of the forty-eight page work is no longer one wrought with reservations, but a firm conviction this is one of the treasures of 2016. No wonder then, that various on-line prediction sites have been regularly touting the book as major contender, a position that actually first surfaced a few months before the book actually released. Such was the advanced hoopla after some of the art was seen, but the respect for Ellis, who created the fabulous Home the previous year. For me it is deja vu all over again. Raul Colon’s Draw! was one of my two or three favorite books of 2014, yet for several months after it released I couldn’t seem to get behind it emotionally. All that changed in a big way.
The book’s exotic interrogative title is very simple to translate based on the positioning of the two humanized insects on the cover and subsequent rhetorical reinforcement in the text. What is That? one insect asks the other as she points to a Y shaped plant. After the most appropriate Kelly green end papers to grace any book not about St. Patrick’s Day, the title page contributes a little more to this deepening mystery when a caterpillar who looks like he went through the same transportation machine that mixed the atoms of a human and a fly in a 1958 film – where the fly wound up with a human head – also approaches this seemingly surprise growth. The caterpillar is then seen walking upside down on a bare branch of cut tree trunk, while two female crickets (the ones seen on the cover minus the human faces) share dialogue. Once again the titular question is asked to which the response Ma nazoot suggests “I don’t know.” The caterpillar is then seen on the following page hanging from the wooden protrusion saying Ta ta!, which we soon enough know is insect lingo for good bye. On the following page this spirited larvae has transformed into a cocoon, bringing another narrative twist into this land of cycles and metamorphosis set in an imaginary kingdom with exceeding persuasive moorings. Another cricket, a beetle and a ladybug converge on a growing plant that just for an instant recalls the major event in Jack and the Beanstalk. One again poses the inquisitive standard, Du Iz Tak?, to which the beetle first says he doesn’t know but adds something along the lines of ‘Maybe it’s a plant.’ The ladybug adds in Du kimma plonk? (What kind of plant?) Eventually the insect contingent mount the leaves, with one stating: Ru badda unk ribble, which is soon enough translated as “We need a ladder.” Su (yes), and Bore inkin Icky. (Let’s ask Icky). Before long they are calling out to Icky, a pill bug who has made his home in the log, telling him they need a ladder. Icky carries out a long ladder as the others celebrate. Ladybug triumphantly proclaims “Unk ribble!” (A ladder!), and in no time they have the ladder set up to build a “furt” (treehouse). Baffling smoke rings waft from the entrances to Icky’s home as he relaxes in a recliner with a book. A snail is keeping watch on the proceedings.
Ellis then treats readers with the first of her A Midsummer Night’s Dream tapestries set nocturnally under the moon and stars as a cricket violinist strums on a perch over the cocoon. Musical notes flow upwards. The blue-black night, upon which the green and brown is exquisitely incorporated makes for a sublimely magical canvas, and serves as a happy prelude to the following days’ plans. Wood, a saw and hammer, a pirate flag, stones, a pail and an acorn (for the chimney top) are all brought into play to construct a new home on the glorious gladdenboot. But a menacing spider makes its first appearance on the far side of the log, and readers know well that a serious threat is imminent. As the spider edges closer the “furt” is looking mighty fine, as one cricket gladly notes, as Icky looks on. At this point the Ellis compositions really take off in detail, color immersion and illustrative intricacy. But the spider, referred to by the denizens of insect land as a “Voobeck” or a “Booby Voobeck” weaves his web around the makeshift habitat, causing one cricket to state that all is lost. But their despair is soon replaced by celebration when a bird swoops down to eat the spider and dismember his web. One cricket exultantly exclaims “Su!” (yes) and on the following canvas the plant begins to sprout, inducing Ooooohs and Du Iz Tak? from the insects. Again we see the smoke rings, which we later find out emanate from the pipes smoked by the pill bugs.
A gorgeous multi-colored flower sprouts from the stalk, one they breathlessly hail as a “gladdenboot.” One inch worm applies the word “scrivadelly” before it, meaning beautiful. The double page spread is a veritable explosion of color and detail and the insect population is there in force. But then as is the case in the life cycle -and this stalk wasn’t blessed with longevity- it begins to wither, whereupon the insects share lamentable good byes, and the smaller bugs abandon the previous celebratory scene. Finally, the three who took full advantage of the “furt”, reading, sipping cool drinks and maintaining house sadly depart, as the plant topples over. At night the serenading violist again strums the strings, seemingly in mournful mode over the dying plant, but renewal is immediate. A butterfly emerges from the hanging cocoon, dancing through the air in response to the violinist’s melody, and the life style begins anew. Carson’s final panel intimates that the events that transpired in the phantasmagorical realm of insect discovery is apt to repeat itself.
Du Iz Tak? boasts one of the year’s largest trim sizes. one that allows the author-artist to direction a sense of urgency to the tapestries where creamy white expanses are prevalent, but also to accentuate some of the panels where practically all the space is utilized, like the one where the giant bird swoops down to feast on the voobeck. The book is one of the year’s most stylish, colorful, irreverent, inventive and sublime. Any list of the very best books of this year should rightfully place this in a tiny handful at the top. I’m sure the Caldecott committee is all over this book, as well they should be.
Note: This is the fiftieth 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 from the days before that date.