August 02, 2007


Scribble. By Deborah Freedman. Knopf. $15.99.

The Circus Is Coming. By Hilary Knight. Golden Books. $15.99.

      Here are a couple of books that are sheer visual pleasures. Deborah Freedman’s Scribble has a delightful story, too. It’s about big sister Emma, who loves to draw princesses and makes a picture of Sleeping Beauty…and little sister Lucie, who prefers to draw kitties, and whose “special SCRIBBLE KITTY” has a marvelous adventure with Emma’s princess. Using unusual perspective tricks – such as action that starts in boxes, then breaks through the lines and seems to come right out of the book at the reader – Freedman (whose own daughters are named Emma and Lucie) moves the central-character focus from the sisters to their drawings. Lucie scribbles on Emma’s picture, so Emma leaves to go tell, and Lucie draws triangle ears on her kitty (after previously omitting them), and the kitty decides to check out the princess, and soon the kitty on his yellow paper has wandered over to the pink paper on which the princess is drawn, dragging Lucie along. Now the scribble on the princess picture comes to represent the “Giant Thicket” preventing the princess from being rescued, and Scribble the cat starts to pull at it, even though Lucie repeatedly says she is “NOT HELPING.” Eventually Lucie relents, helps dismantle the thicket, and frees Scribble to kiss and awaken the princess – and when Emma returns, her princess picture is unscribbled and the kitty and the princess “all lived Happily Ever After. As drawings sometimes do.” This is a simply wonderful story, and the pictures are beyond wonderful, with Freedman – who is an architect – making her first picture book a showpiece for all the angles and curves that architects use when designing real-world buildings. It’s a tale of “scribbling rivalry” told throughout with joy and cleverness.

      Hilary Knight is an old hand at children’s books – he has been illustrating them for more than 50 years – but The Circus Is Coming seems new even though it was originally published in 1978. A non-story storybook, it is no more or less than a circus parade come enchantingly to life in page after page of colorful, dynamic, action-packed pictures that fill every inch of the paper and spill off its sides. It starts with enthusiastic children and circus posters, then becomes a parade mixing the facts of grand circuses of the past with fanciful elaborations of them. The “Cats of the Wild” two-page spread, for instance, not only includes a wheeled cage containing tigers and a trainer but also has a lion riding behind the cage with a costumed girl on his back, plus girls in leopard costumes atop the cage, plus girls dressed as lionesses controlling the zebras that are pulling everything along. A two-page spread of clowns includes one riding a rocket, one parachuting down to street level while carrying two pigs, and a whole bunch of them stuffed into a car. Every page brings new wonders: tightropes and teeterboards, trained horses and bareback riders, orangutans playing music (on piano, harp, violins, flutes and recorder!) atop an elegant pink-and-purple float, and much more. This is a circus of fancy, not reality, including a pirate ship, movable salt-water tank complete with octopus and shark, baby bulldogs, a snake handler, giant rabbits, a tiny piano player – there are wonders everywhere. This is what a circus must look like to very young children – what it must have looked like to Knight himself and his brother Joey, whose fascination the book captures and whose pictures appear on one page (with pictures of other real-world Knight acquaintances scattered elsewhere). And there’s a super-cute touch at the end: a list of things to find in the pictures, so kids have an excuse –as if they’ll need one! – to go through the book all over again.

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