by Sam Juliano
Near the conclusion of A. H. Taylor’s The Color Machine the Mayor of Colormazoo addresses a crowd of testy petitioners with judicial clarity that hearkens back to Shakespeare. When this wise and all-knowing arbiter of righteousness asks his chagrined audience to “lend me your ears” one may recall Mark Antony’s funeral speech in Julius Caesar, but the final resolve is more in tune with the closing monologue of Romeo and Juliet, when Prince Escalus lays the rightful blame on the city’s warring families -the Montagues and the Capulets- whose adversarial episodes have resulted in foolhardy skirmishes and a tragic end. Taylor understandably steers clear of any notion of violence, but his telling implication is abundantly obvious. The book’s titular oracle is something you might expect to see in a Roald Dahl novel, especially in view of the biting irony of having to fix something that should be permanently destroyed, but Taylor relies on an idea that proposes that if people can’t see the errors of their ways, the proverbial rug will be pulled from under their feet.
Taylor’s black ink pencil drawings are accompanied by full page bleeding color puddles that are meant to convey that the long tradition of seeing things through the prism of color has now been suspended. The full page color washes are meant to look drab and saturated, and they project a distinctly bleak picture. A motley group of fuming residents are practically riotous in the opening spread. A woman with a snail-like hairdo carrying an umbrella, frame lurches forward, while another belies his inner countenance under a wolf costume and others carry on as if their taxes had tripled. A church in the background is meant to accentuate an underlining hypocrisy in this sorry hamlet of ignorance and prejudice, a place where one’s color means much more than their character, their integrity or their religion. One man bullies a child, and others make angry gestures from windows. The enraged crowd appear as if they will accept nothing less than full kaleidoscopic reinstatement. Their ugly demeanor has been downgraded for the youngest students of course, but one can’t help being reminded because of the context of the scene in To Kill A Mockingbird when the townspeople hellbent on mischief decide they will take the law into their own hands when they storm the jail where Tom Robinson is being held. Taylor’s delightful rhyming prose sets the parameters of this impasses as one between “the town and Mayor”:
Please, calm down and be patient town….Our troubles are but a few.”/”Give me time to solve this crime.” Said the Mayor of Colormazoo.
Taylor’s ongoing illustrative minimalism maintains the narrative urgency. He describes the population as an ethnic melting pot where whites, blacks, browns and a few tans are united only for the common cause of returning the town to the social status quo. But “technical expertise” is not part of their constricted world view. They expected the Mayor to find the malfunction and to repair it immediately. The town’s leading official carries a ladder toward the entrance of of a white building shaped like the top of a derby hat, but with outside speakers that five it an authoritative aura. Armed with a flashlight the Mayor investigates only to find that the nuts and bolts are all in place, though the fact that they are “Bound with rubber” and “Stuck in glue” indicates a level of transparency aside from the kid-friendly mechanics. Taylor’s way of transmitting mob hysteria is to show people banging on the entrance door, in the chosen lingo, in bold red, they “rattled” the door, a chair, the bed, the pictures off the wall and the Mayor himself. Then as the Mayor realizes his options have practically evaporated the bedlam suddenly ceases and he beholds silence. The people huddle together, hand-in-hand to figure out a plan. Like the longtime adversarial French villagers in Marcia Brown’s Caldecott Honor book Stone Soup there is now a common purpose, and the blacks help whites, who help the browns, who help the small contingent of tans. Of course there is the same deceptive aspect to this narrative twist as the very people who prevented happy integration are now relying on their once-resented fellow residents to help them repair a machine that would return this town to the darkness of racism. The Mayor quickly realizes while delighting in this sudden magnanimous spirit that the machine is responsible for sustaining hate and intolerance, and that by making sure it remains dysfunctional the town can like in harmony in a place where all are equal. The Color Machine, interestingly enough is that rare picture book where color is trumped by black and white, where a lack of detail is just the refinement needed to showcase that everyone is the same.
Taylor’s end papers accentuate the glorious monotony of sameness while his yellow-based cover subtlety condemns bigotry with title letters drawn in muted and ragged colors. The Color Machine is a moving and pointed lesson for the primary grade students in that there is no place in a world where color and ethic disparity should be seen as anything more than cosmetic adornment. It is powerful stuff.