July 02, 2015
(++++) BETTER BOARD BOOKS
Charley Harper’s Animal Alphabet. By Zoe Burke. Illustrations by Charley Harper. Pomegranate Kids. $10.95.
Charley Harper’s Count the Birds. By Zoe Burke. Illustrations by Charley Harper. Pomegranate Kids. $10.95.
Charley Harper’s Book of Colors. By Zoe Burke. Illustrations by Charley Harper. Pomegranate Kids. $10.95.
The Doghouse. By Jan Thomas. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.
In retrospect, board books featuring the art of Charley Harper (1922-2007) seem inevitable. Harper had just the sort of remarkable clarity in his vision, just the sort of blend of reality and make-believe, that fits the board-book format (and, in general, works for pre-readers and young readers) exceptionally well. But it is only now that Pomegranate Kids is bringing out a series of Charley Harper board books – which, however, are very much worth the wait. Zoe Burke, who has written the words for other books featuring Harper’s art, has taken three straightforward, traditional board-book concepts – the alphabet, numbers and colors – and given them treatments that mesh wonderfully with Harper’s geometric-but-always-recognizable drawings of wildlife. The text itself flows very well, as in Charley Harper’s Animal Alphabet: “Dog and Dolphin./ Duck and Dove./ Elephants and Eagles/ All need love.” But it is Harper’s drawings that make these books so very special. The “D” page here has an angular beagle sniffing at a very rounded dove, with a dolphin’s carefully shaped snout above and a beautifully colored duck below. The “E” page reflects the “all need love” line with a baby elephant posed perfectly beneath its mother as an eagle, up above, gazes at its just-hatched chick. Harper’s unapologetic use of geometric shapes – which artists almost always use to start their drawings, but subsequently erase or modify substantially – lends his pictures both stateliness and clarity. The stylized hummingbirds, the mother giraffe whose long tongue is licking the head of the giraffe baby, the amazing porcupine that completely fills a square within another square, the straight line of seven quail overlapping so as to seem like a seven-headed bird – all these and more are enthralling in a way quite different from that of most of the simplified drawings in books for very young children. Indeed, one of the charms of Harper’s art is that it does not really seem simplified at all: it appears impressionistic, providing insight into animals in highly intriguing ways. The fan-shaped vulture, the triangular-eared calico cat whose coat is all made of colored circles and parts of circles, the monkeys with intertwined tails and sideways glances, the overlapping owls that (like the quail) seem to blend into one bird – these and more are a feast for young eyes (older ones, too!), and a highly appealing introduction to the letters of the alphabet.
The books about numbers and colors are just as effective and just as enjoyable. Harper especially loved drawing birds, and they are all over Charley Harper’s Count the Birds, in a style that even young children will recognize if they see the alphabet book first. Two hummingbirds, for example, seem stationary, almost carved from wood, except that their wings are shown as a series of curves, representing speedy fluttering. Four puffins appear in two groups of two, moving from one side of the page to the other and seeming to blend into each other as they do so – while, in contrast, six pelicans are lined up one next to the other, perched atop pilings, all facing the reader and each looking exactly like the next (except, in a bit of the subtle humor that is often present in Harper’s work, the pelican on the far right has only one foot on a piling and the other dangling in mid-air). As for Charley Harper’s Book of Colors, here the calico cat returns (featured because some of its spots are orange), and there are also striking pictures of an immediately recognizable fox (also orange), a plump red cardinal, and a tall pink flamingo in the foreground of a group of many flamingos and flamingo babies (one of the latter being white – another touch of Harper’s gentle humor). The black and gray face of a raccoon stares out of the page here, while a brown chipmunk with perfectly parallel stripes looks off to the side – and the solid black eyes of a white seal seem to stare nowhere in particular. Interestingly, there is not (at least yet) a Charley Harper’s Book of Shapes, but there certainly could be one, since, in a sense, all the art in these three delightful board books is about shapes, and the special way in which Harper used them. In fact, adults visiting the books with young children can go beyond the “official” purpose of each volume by showing kids just what shapes Harper uses, and how he combines them, to make highly distinctive depictions of so many different animals.
The animals in The Doghouse, originally published in 2008 and now available in board-book form, are drawn in far more typical fashion, and Jan Thomas’ story is – well, more of a story. Four animal friends – Mouse, Cow, Duck and Pig – are playing ball when cow accidentally kicks the ball into the dreaded doghouse, which looms over the four on a nearby hill, its black opening leading to who-knows-where and who-knows-what. As soon as the ball goes inside, Thomas shows lightning and thunder –there is a sense of doom. Mouse announces that Cow will get the ball, because Cow is big, brave and strong; but after Cow goes into the doghouse, she does not come out. Now the three remaining friends are really scared. Mouse and Duck decide that Pig should go into the doghouse because he is smart, wise and stinky – to the last of which adjectives Pig objects. But he goes inside anyway – and does not come out. Now there are scary bats flying over the doghouse, and scary-looking tree limbs around it, and now it is Duck’s turn to go in, even though all that Mouse can say is that Duck is noisy (and, indeed, never says anything but “quack”). Duck too does not come out, and now there are eyes peering out of the doghouse, and teeth visible, and – well, now it is time to show that there was nothing to be afraid of after all. Thomas does that very amusingly, even pulling Mouse into the doghouse at the very end for a concluding scene that is as bright and upbeat as the earlier scenes have been dark and gloomy. The Doghouse offers a lot of silly fun and some very well-done cartoonish drawings. Indeed, they are deliberately overdone – in one, for example, Mouse is so scared that his frightened, open-mouthed face seems about to come right out of the page (and in fact is too big to fit on one page: only part of his ears can be seen). This is highly amusing storytelling for the youngest children – and fun for adults looking for something just slightly spooky (but ultimately reassuring) to read to them.