March 31, 2016


Swatch: The Girl Who Loved Color. By Julia Denos. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.

Joyous Blooms to Color. By Eleri Fowler. Harper. $15.99.

My Mother, My Heart. By Eleri Fowler. Harper. $15.99.

     The sheer joie de vivre of Julia Denos’ Swatch permeates every page – every messy-looking, riot-of-color page. An exceptionally clever fantasy with a standard-issue moral given an unusual twist, Swatch is the story of a paint-bedecked, color-splattered girl who lives in a land where colors grow and shrink and zip and zoom and expand and contract and assume any shape colors can, which is any shape at all. Swatch is a “color tamer,” dancing with colors, riding them as if they were waves, wielding paintbrushes like magic wands, searching high and low for new colors, bright colors, unusual colors. Denos gives the colors names such as “In-Between Gray” and “Rumble-Tumble Pink,” and the interactions of Swatch with the colors – each color shown in multiple hues and wonderfully inventive shapes – are a delight. As for the story: Swatch one day captures a color and puts it in a jar, where she enjoys looking at it so much that she decides to catch some others as well, and she does, until her “room was full to bursting” (and it is an ordinary girl’s room behind all those amazing color blobs). But are the colors happy in captivity? Swatch has never asked “if a color wanted taming,” but she eventually does, asking “Yellowest Yellow” to climb into a jar – and the color refuses. Swatch, who is polite if a touch befuddled by all this, says that is fine, and she does not capture the color even though she is capable of doing so. Swatch realizes that she “had forgotten colors were wild,” and she is sure the bright yellow, now growing huger and huger and wilder and wilder, is going to become a monster and eat her – but no. Instead she experiences “something sweet and warbling” and “something warm and buttery,” and suddenly she is riding on Yellowest Yellow and having the time of her life. And she frees all the other colors so they too can run wild, and Denos concludes, “Together they made a masterpiece,” which may look like a two-page mass of swirls, splatters, splots and splotches to adults but which kids will know is nothing less than a gigantic outburst of joy. The “if you love it, set it free” message underlies but does not quite fit this unusual fantasy – parents may need to remind children that in everyday life, one does not toss and throw colors all over the walls and doors and ceilings and one’s clothes and skin – but it makes a wonderful conclusion of a book that is both cleverly conceived and infectiously enjoyable to look at.

     Kids – and adults – who want to channel their inner Swatch in ways more appropriate in the real world have plenty of opportunities to do just that in Welsh illustrator Eleri Fowler’s Joyous Blooms to Color. The title barely hints at the opulence of Fowler’s creativity, which not only includes a profusion of remarkably detailed floral arrangements but also draws on influences that range from single words (“wonder,” “dream”) to literary quotations, primarily from Emerson (“Earth laughs in flowers,” for example) and Shakespeare (“To unpathed waters, undreamed shores” and more). A French proverb on one page offers a lovely, thoughtful lesson: “Wherever life plants you, bloom with grace.” Children old enough to appreciate the intricacy of Fowler’s designs will enjoy the book, but their parents will likely find it even more enthralling. One page, for instance, features a flower-bedecked bicycle atop which a bird is holding a bloom in its beak – and the bike’s wheel spokes are all curlicues and hearts. A truly lovely two-page picture of a tree shows it with beautifully detailed leaves on the left side (and with a swing hanging from one branch), while the right side shows the leaves transforming in near-Escher manner into butterflies that then fly off, leaving the branches at the far right almost bare. That is an encapsulation of a story without any words or any formal plot. One page here bears the words “beautiful world,” and it is indeed beautiful, with flowers, butterflies, a bridge over a gentle waterfall at whose bottom a pool metamorphoses into two of its fish inhabitants. But “beautiful world” in fact describes many of the illustrations in Joyous Blooms to Color and, indeed, the book as a whole. A few of the pages are actually too complex for any but the most meticulous and detail-oriented artist to try to color, but they look so fascinating in black-and-white that leaving them that way is scarcely a problem. There are many stories asking to be told in Fowler’s book, some through colors and some through words – even words that reflect the lesson that Swatch learns in Denos’ book: on one page, Fowler quotes Thoreau, “All good things are wild and free.”

     Fowler’s My Mother, My Heart is every bit as joyous as her book of flowers, although here she uses a slightly different descriptive adjective, calling this work “A Joyful Book to Color.” Joyful or joyous, this book too offers wonderfully precise, beautifully detailed black-and-white pages to color (or just to enjoy as they are), with some loving and apt quotations. “She rejoiced as only mothers can in the good fortunes of their children. – Louisa May Alcott.” “The mother’s heart is the child’s schoolroom. – Henry Ward Beecher.” “All that I am, my mother made me. – John Quincy Adams.” The pictures here include flowers, to be sure, but go well beyond them. There is a two-page spread of wonderfully intricate shells, and another of a dizzying variety of bows. There are homey, baking-related items, from flour and sugar containers to decorated rolling pins and beautiful cupcakes under glass. There are two pages of perfume bottles, shown in an amazing variety of sizes and shapes. There is a wonderful two-page spread displaying an astonishing number of types of stars, with just a few tree leaves here and there (as if the heavens are appearing in extreme close-up through a tree’s limbs) and a charming mother and baby owl perched on a crescent moon. And there are pages bearing single words that, in the context of the book’s title, take on special meaning: Happiness. Brave. Family. Forever. This is a more sentimental book than Joyous Blooms to Color, and indeed may be overly treacly for some tastes. But for those who find its sentiment and sentimentality not to be overdone, My Mother, My Heart, whether offered as an uncolored gift or first colored and then given, is sure to come across as being just as heartfelt as Fowler intends it to be.

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