May 04, 2006


Pop’s Bridge. By Eve Bunting. Illustrated by C.F. Payne. Harcourt. $17.

      The Golden Gate Bridge is a marvel: a thing of beauty as well as one of the world’s great spans, allowing an easy crossing between San Francisco and Marin County across San Francisco Bay. Completed in May 1937 – a million dollars under budget – by a team led by the visionary engineer who designed it, Joseph Baermann Strauss, the bridge is an ever-present memorial to him: he died less than a year after triumphantly finishing the project.

      Pop’s Bridge is not a grand story, though, and not Strauss’s story. It is the tale of a young boy named Robert whose father is an ironworker building the bridge. Robert’s best friend, Charlie, also has a father building the bridge – Charlie’s dad is a painter – but Robert always thinks of the span as his father’s bridge. Then a terrible accident shows Robert that the bridge is a team project, and brings him even closer to his father…as Charlie is brought closer to his. At the end, the triumph of the new bridge belongs to everyone.

      Eve Bunting uses the fictional Robert and Charlie, and the real-life accident that helps Robert realize the importance of teamwork, to dramatize a story that was already plenty dramatic. The personalization works well, bringing a large, adult project into a child’s perceptual world. But Bunting overdoes things with her subplot about a jigsaw puzzle of the bridge. Robert and Charlie are doing the puzzle together. Robert hides the final piece so his father can be the one to complete the puzzle, but after the accident, Robert cuts the last piece in half so both fathers can put the pieces in at the exact same time. It’s a nice message, but the emotion is slathered on somewhat too thickly.

      C.F. Payne’s illustrations of things – bridge, puzzle, scissors – are much more effective than his pictures of people. The latter are often peculiar, starting with a cover illustration of Robert and his dad: the father is correctly proportioned, but Robert’s head is much too big for his body. Payne sometimes gets the proportions right – for instance, when Charlie, arms crossed, stands looking at the almost-completed jigsaw puzzle. But he often gets them wrong, most noticeably for the pedestrians-only opening day, showing a crowd with Charlie and Robert in the foreground. Both boys’ heads are much too big, and Robert’s expression looks like a parody of one of Alfred E. Newman’s in Mad. It is right on the edge of actually being unpleasant. Payne also tries a little too hard to make it seem that San Francisco was one big happy multiracial family in the 1930s: Charlie and his father are Asian, and the opening-day crowd on the bridge is packed with people of all colors.

      Kids ages 5-8 – the book’s target audience – will enjoy the derring-do of the bridge builders, and parents will like the author’s note at the end that gives more information on the bridge, its conception and its construction. But Pop’s Bridge has discordant elements that make it a not-quite-sterling tribute to a golden span.

No comments:

Post a Comment