November 19, 2015
(++++) WHEN PICTURES ARE, OR AREN’T, ENOUGH
The Only Child. By Guojing. Schwartz & Wade. $19.99.
Paddington and the Christmas Surprise. By Michael Bond. Illustrated by R.W. Alley. Harper. $17.99.
Pinkalicious and the Snow Globe. By Victoria Kann. HarperFestival. $4.99.
There have been some remarkable children’s books released in recent years in which illustrations without words tell either the whole story or at least a great deal of it. The works by Shaun Tan and Brian Selznick stand as prime examples. To this rarefied group may now be added The Only Child by Chinese illustrator Guojing. A tale of the inward effects of the recently reversed one-child-only policy in China, this is the entirely wordless story of a young child – intended as a girl, but drawn androgynously – whose loneliness at home, after her mother goes to work, leads her on a journey that starts in the mundane world but soon leads, through the child’s sighting of a marvelous stag in the woods, to a place of beauty in the clouds. It is a world that may or may not be imaginary – Guojing carefully leaves both possibilities open – and it is one in which the child encounters a playful, roly-poly, panda-like cloud creature, a whale whose enormity is almost beyond description or depiction, and a series of exhausting adventures that eventually bring her home to her distraught parents and grandmother and to a peaceful sleep at a window outside which tree branches look just stag-shaped enough to leave readers wondering about what has happened. Certainly the story is a highly sentimental, even maudlin one, but Guojing’s black-and-white pencil illustrations take it beyond the treacly notion of a child who, feeling unloved, visits a place of delight (and modest danger), a realm where wonders just may be real and the loneliness of childhood most certainly is. There are a few mildly frightening scenes here, but the overall impression is one of wonder in discovery and delight in finding playmates – even cloud-based ones – to relieve a pervasive feeling of aloneness that, one senses, not even the happy family reunion at the end of the book can fully dispel. The Only Child can be read purely as a wondrous adventure, and will surely seem that way to young children; but adults will see more in it than that – and will understand how Guojing’s own experience as an only child under China’s government mandate would have instilled in her the feelings that she brings out so effectively here without a single word.
Michael Bond’s Paddington is no longer lonely and no longer wandering after he comes to live with the Browns in London, and his adventures are more mundane than those of Guojing’s child – and filled with words. In Paddington and the Christmas Surprise, matters are also distinctly seasonal. Originally published in 1997, revised in 2008, and now reissued, this is the story of Paddington’s trip to a department store that has seen better days, Barkridges, to see Santa Claus and ride the train through a display called Winter Wonderland. The store trip is Paddington’s treat for the family – he has “been saving his bun money for ages,” Mrs. Brown says – but the experience proves less than enthralling. The store is rather dingy and the winter displays are distinctly rundown, to such a degree that an annoyed Paddington at one point “was counting the number of buns it had taken to pay for the outing.” Of course, for both seasonal and Paddington-story reasons, matters cannot remain so downbeat. Nor do they. Paddington finds trouble, as he always does, through his usual well-meaning attempts to make things better – and by the end of the book, everyone is happy, big crowds have again thronged to Barkridges, and even the ultra-crabby store manager, who at first refers to Paddington as “a large creepy-crawly,” is left talking about how “honored” the store is that the bear from Darkest Peru paid it a visit. Everything ends, of course, with a huge jar of marmalade and a very happy bear. Paddington and the Christmas Surprise is not really one of the best Paddington books, and gets a (+++) rating. But Bond’s portrayal of the mistake-and-accident-prone bear remains endearing, and if R.W. Appel’s illustrations are on the straightforward side, they are colorful and expressive enough so that young readers will find them a seasonal treat.
Speaking of colors, Pinkalicious and the Snow Globe serves up Victoria Kann’s usual heaping helping of pinkness, with this short seasonal book (which contains more than a page of stickers) informing readers who may have forgotten that Pinkalicious’ family is the Pinkertons and the town where they live is Pinkville. Pinkalicious and her younger brother, Peter, are frustrated at the lack of snow, so they try making their own with shredded newspaper in the living room – resulting in predictable chaos. To give them something less messily confetti-ish to do, their mom takes them to a gift shop whose owner, Maggie, makes snow globes – but there is no snow yet this winter, so she has not been inspired to make any. However, thanks to Pinkalicious and her family, Maggie finds her inspiration after all, and thanks the Pinkertons with a special snow globe that contains, among other things, pink snow. At that point, the only thing missing from this pleasant little (+++) story is a happy ending that includes snow, and that is just what Kann delivers at the conclusion. Pinkalicious and the Snow Globe is a brief and modest entry in the extensive Pinkalicious series, but as with Paddington and the Christmas Surprise, it is a book that existing fans of the title characters will enjoy looking at – and whose words they will enjoy reading.