February 26, 2009


Tommaso and the Missing Line. By Matteo Pericoli. Knopf. $15.99.

Chicken and Cat Clean Up. By Sara Varon. Scholastic. $16.99.

     There are words in both these books, but they take a back seat to the stories’ pictures. The story's distinctive pictures, in the case of Matteo Pericoli’s Tommaso and the Missing Line. This book is quite different from the usual ones targeting ages 5-8, being filled with concepts of art and architecture – none of them ever mentioned overtly, but all of them permeating the story. The tale is about a young Italian boy, Tommaso, who realizes one day that a line from a picture he made has suddenly disappeared. It has not rubbed away or faded – it is just gone. And Tommaso wants it back – he doesn’t want to re-draw it or accept its disappearance; he wants that line back. So he starts a journey through the city, asking characters from a mechanic to a barber to a sleepy cat whether they have seen his line. No one finds Tommaso’s quest strange; they simply accept it and suggest various places that the line might be – in a car antenna, for instance, or in the many shapes of cut-off hair on the barbershop’s floor. But Tommaso, acknowledging all those lines, knows that none of them is his line, so he goes to visit his nonna (grandma), at whose home he made his drawing – and he makes a warm and gently surreal discovery there. Pericoli, an architect as well as an artist, imbues his cityscapes with the feeling of reality, using perspective dramatically and including enjoyable little visual elements just for the fun of it – such as the multiple reflections of the barber in the barbershop’s mirrored wall, and the positioning of the sleepy cat atop a Corinthian column amid Roman (or at least Romanesque) ruins. The illustrations are in black and white – except that the various lines and Tommaso’s drawing are in orange – and this adds to a certain elegance in the book. Interestingly, Pericoli does not show Tommaso’s grandma’s face – perhaps the book’s dedication “to the memory of nonna Mimia” explains that. What does not need explaining is the thoughtfulness and lovely detailing that Pericoli brings to every page of this very special book.

     Sara Varon’s illustrations for Chicken and Cat Clean Up are much more cartoonish than Pericoli’s – scarcely a surprise, since Varon is (among other things) a comics artist. This nearly wordless sequel to the nearly wordless Chicken and Cat offers a simple story with an affirmation of friendship and a moral about doing what you are really good at – without using dialogue to communicate any of its message. Best friends Chicken and Cat are working together in Chicken’s housekeeping business, even though Cat isn’t really very awake in the morning and isn’t very good at cleaning things. In fact, he is so bad at the job that he gets thrown out of an apartment after causing a variety of messes (broken glass, overflowing washer, spilled water). Cat is just too catlike for a housekeeping job – when he gets hungry, he starts eating a plant. But Cat is just catlike enough to catch a thieving mouse that he spots while waiting outside the apartment building where Chicken is still working. Cat ends up a hero, makes some money, and gives Chicken an idea for an expansion of the business to include mousecatching – a happy ending for all, except maybe the mouse. Cat even ends up with a pet that he has been wordlessly wanting to buy, and the stage is set for Varon’s next visit to a world where pictures consistently communicate more than words.

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