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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Blown into Danger - and Back

Posted by Cynthia Light Brown

When my kids were young, we read stacks and stacks and stacks of picture books. There were several years where we read for 3 hours a day, every day. Believe me when I say that a picture book needs to be readable not just the first time or the third time, but the 50th time. And for writers of picture books, I recommend that you read your picture book aloud not just once, but three times a day for at least a week. If you don't still love it, if it doesn't have a natural rhythm to its language, go back and revise, or maybe even start anew.

I started to pick 3 of my favorite picture books for this post, but when I went to my shelves to pull some off (even though my youngest is almost 11, I still have lots of them because I can't bear to part with such good friends) there were so many in my pile that I had to narrow down the criteria a bit. So I narrowed it down to picture books that take us into danger and back. Nearly all of the great picture books do this of course - when you include emotional danger - but these 3 all venture into physical danger as well and do so in different ways. All three blow me away with their language and visual depth. And I know for a fact that when you read each of these for the 100th time, it's still fabulous.

Baba Yaga and the Wise Doll
Retold by Hiawyn Oram, Illustrated by Ruth Brown

The protagonist in this story, Too Nice, is bullied by Horrid Child and Very Horrid Child. They force Too Nice to go into Baba Yaga's forest to bring back one of Baba Yaga's toads. We are told that Baba Yaga is "truly terrifying" and she is; with eyes that glow like "hot coals" and illustrations to match, Baba Yaga scares the bejeebers out of you.

But as Baba Yaga says about herself, "That's what I'm here for." Indeed. Too Nice comes away from the frightening encounter wiser, more confident, and even with a little sass (and with one of the frogs which gobbles up Horrid Child and Very Horrid Child!). For her part, Too Nice "- not surprisingly after all she'd been through - stopped being too nice and became...well...Just About Right."

Jack and the Beanstalk
Retold and Illustrated by Steven Kellogg

Steven Kellogg has some of the most wonderful retellings of anyone - with wild, energetic illustrations and inventive text to boot. The ogre and wife in this retelling will blow you away. Which is more terrifying - the spread when Jack comes back for the third time, as he hides in the breadbox with just a sliver of his terrified face showing, with the wife leaning on the breadbox fingering her necklace of skulls, and the ogre searching through the honey jar dripping with ants? Or maybe when the ogre is wakened by the singing harp and his face is split in rage? Or maybe just the sheer dark fury of the ogre as he chases after Jack at the end, sword in mouth, and seeming to be coming straight at the reader?

The illustrations have such zaniness, and the language ("Then Jack tiptoed out of the oven, nabbed the golden hen, and off he peltered.") has such a wonderful rhythm and almost hominess to it that the terror is softened just enough - barely. Jack comes out triumphant, conquering the ogre and getting riches for his mother and him. And, of course, he gets the girl.

The Zoom Trilogy
by Tim Wynne-Jones, Illustrated by Eric Beddows

Zoom, the cat, goes on three adventures (originally published as three separate books). Probably the scariest moment comes in the last story when he see that his friend has been made into a mummy. Even here, the scary part is short-lived, as Zoom quickly cuts open the bindings, so it's not as scary as the other two books. And the lovely pencil drawings help you always feel at home even in the Arctic (plus Zoom is absolutely adorable). But the danger is there nevertheless, much of it only implied. Will the waves overturn his raft? Will Zoom get separated from his friend in the Arctic? Will the log with eyes in the dark river cut the journey short? Going through these dangers and adventures give Zoom the power to join his uncle at the end, on the biggest adventure yet.

I love this book for the feeling it gives; though danger waits, adventure pulls even stronger. And at the end, we can join Zoom in searching for the source of the Nile. I'm game. "And they all sailed off into the gentle Egyptian night."

Our kids need these stories of going into danger and coming out again. Over and over and over...and over again. Truth: I need them. The Egyptian night isn't always gentle. But it calls, and we can follow and we'll find our way back. Maybe we'll even be stronger for it.

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