August 25, 2016
(++++) VISUAL DELICACIES
Mervin the Sloth Is About to Do the Best Thing in the World. By Colleen AF Venable. Illustrated by Ruth Chan. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Wonderfall. By Michael Hall. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
The story lines are thin to the vanishing point in some picture books that are nevertheless worthy of celebration for the sheer joy provided by looking at them. Colleen AF Venable and Ruth Chan have a marvelous collaboration in Mervin the Sloth Is About to Do the Best Thing in the World, a book in which the words themselves are central to the visual presentation. The inside front cover and facing page simply show two dozen identical outline pictures of Mervin the sloth – the key here is that sloths move very, very slowly. Turn to the first page of the actual book and there is a single picture of Mervin, standing completely still, looking out at the reader. Turn again and the left-hand page, the one with copyright information and other usually-ignored legal details, shows the bottom part of a portion of the book’s title falling downward from above, with a cricket riding on them and saying, “Whee! Falling letters!” On the facing page is Mervin in exactly the same position as before, but with his eyes turned just enough to see the letters falling. Turn the page again and things get stranger and funnier: the cricket hops off as Mervin’s friend the raccoon walks on to ask Mervin what is happening – and as more letters making up part of the book’s title descend from above. It takes several more double-page spreads before all the letters of the long title are fully displayed, the first part of the title on a left-hand page and the second on the right-hand one opposite it. And just as the title becomes fully visible, a bird flying in from the left collides with it and starts demanding to know just what “the best thing in the world” might be. Mervin, for his part, just stands there, not saying a thing. But lots of other animals start showing up: prairie dogs that know the best thing is digging, a gazelle that praises “gazelling” and blocks the words of the title by leaping repeatedly in front of them, and plenty of other animals with their own opinions. For instance, a spider thinks Mervin is going to fight a shark, a giraffe thinks Mervin is going to turn into a robot, and so on and so forth. For his part, Mervin just stands there, very very s-l-o-w-l-y raising his arms from his sides. Soon the pages are jammed with animals standing on, in front of, above and around the book’s title, all getting thoroughly bored as Mervin does nothing, or almost nothing. Everyone eventually leaves, fed up with waiting and in some cases mocking Mervin. But the raccoon stays until big new words suddenly rain down from above: “Hug his best friend.” And that, very very very very slowly and at the very very very very end, is just what slow-moving, still-silent Mervin does. And after the end, on the inside back cover and facing page, Mervin is seen hugging all the other animals in the very very very very bestest possible ending for a very very very very special book.
Michael Hall’s books are special as well, consistently so, whether he builds a story around cut-through pages and carpenter ants that are increasingly fearful of what the colors they see may mean (It’s an Orange Aardvark!) or around a troupe of crayons whose members believe they are being menaced by a huge and threatening scribble that turns out to have a surprising secret (Frankencrayon). Hall’s visual cleverness is on display again in Wonderfall, a celebration of autumn for which Hall creates 14 blended words reflecting the season – and an oak tree to narrate the story. There is “peacefall,” with a gentle breeze and falling acorns; “beautifall” to describe the colors of leaves and seasonal produce; “frightfall” for Halloween, for which the digitally rendered images are especially effective in evoking the spirit (and spirits) of the night; “thankfall” for, of course, Thanksgiving; and on and on, the tree’s leaves getting fewer and fewer, until they are bagged for mulch (“resourcefall”) and the tree becomes “wistfall” as birds fly off for winter – which eventually arrives with the first “snowfall,” they non-invented word to which all the invented ones lead. The main part of Wonderfall is strictly visual, with no real narrative – but then, after “snowfall,” the final five pages make up a section called “Getting Ready for Winter,” in which Hall explains what various animals seen in the book do as cold weather approaches, and what trees do, too. The basic story, such as it is, is so simple that even very young children will enjoy it, and the illustrations are apt and attractive. The five final pages are for older kids and for parents to read to children, providing a science-based narrative packed with interesting facts that neatly complement the tree’s presentation of the earlier part of the book: “I offer the squirrels my leaves and twigs so they can make nests in my branches. Most often, there is one squirrel to a nest, and most squirrels have several nests to sleep in. …If you happen to leave a mitten on the ground, a squirrel might very well snatch it and build it into its nest.” There are plenty of seasonal books out there, but few as wonderful as Wonderfall.