October 13, 2016


Not Quite Black and White. By Jonathan Ying. Illustrations by Victoria Ying. Harper. $14.99.

Thankfulness to Color. By Zoë Ingram. Harper. $15.99.

     Cleverly conceived but drifting a bit away from its central premise, Not Quite Black and White, by the brother-and-sister team of Jonathan and Victoria Ying, starts out as a delightful way to show young readers about colors. The Yings’ idea is to take animals known to be black and white and introduce splotches of color when portraying them. So an anthropomorphic, cartoonish zebra, walking on two legs and carrying a basket of flowers, is shown wearing a pink-polka-dotted skirt. A scene of penguins includes one in yellow boots. A Dalmatian puppy sports a bright red cape. So far, so good in the illustrations – although there is already a bit of strain in the text, with the book’s very first entry reading, “Most zebras wear stripes, but this one does not./ She much prefers dressing in pink polka dot.” That really ought to be “dots” – the verbiage needs some added thought here. But putting that aside, the choice of animals starts to come a bit unglued after a while. Skunks in blue bathing suits are fine, but a half-black, half-white llama? Even when it is wearing a brown scarf, that coloration is more than a bit of a stretch. A black-and-white tiger? Well, it could be, although even young children surely know that tigers are normally black and orange. But then, all of a sudden, we get a horse (dressed as a traffic-control officer). There could be a black-and-white horse, but choosing that animal for this color scheme is less than obvious. The approach works for a panda and is justifiable for a cow and a kitten – cows and cats can be many colors – but a badger? Well, it is true that their heads are black-and-white, and that is all readers see here (this badger is wearing a spacesuit and posing on the moon) – but the choice of this animal in this specific color combination just seems rather strained. And right after showing the badger, the Yings change the tone of the book, trying to make a societal comment at the end by saying “we’re each pretty special, not quite black and white.” Well, that is an admirable sentiment, surely, but it is out of keeping with the rest of the book, which suddenly switches from amusing ways to illustrate colors to social commentary. However well-intentioned this conclusion may be, it is jarring. Kids will enjoy the portrayal of the various animals, even if they may need the specifics of the coloration explained to them, but the book’s conclusion, like the use of “dot” rather than “dots” for the text’s initial rhyme, just makes it seem that the Yings are trying a little too hard in their first picture book.

     Black-and-white illustrations are the centerpiece of a whole series of beautifully designed coloring books by Zoë Ingram, and Thankfulness to Color fits right into the Ingram parade. It is not, however, quite as enjoyable as other Ingram books in the same format – an approach that includes highly detailed black-and-white pictures (digitally scanned and enhanced after Ingram initially draws them in pen), with quotations or statements relating to the book’s theme on most pages. Thankfulness to Color is more limited than other Ingram books because it is tied so obviously to the Thanksgiving season, even though its subtitle, “Gratitude to live and color by,” makes it seem to be connected to the whole year. Many of the chosen quotations here, though, lack the attractiveness of those in other Ingram books, being on the pedestrian side. “Rest and be thankful. – William Wordsworth.” “My thanksgiving is perpetual. – Henry David Thoreau.” And the words from Ingram herself do not even try to go beyond the straightforward: “There is always something to be thankful for,” “Give thanks,” “Be kind,” “Be thoughtful,” and so on. The to-be-colored pages here are as carefully crafted as always, featuring a wide variety of leaves, fruits and vegetables, flowers, butterflies, and geometric designs, many of them being very pointedly seasonal. A lattice-topped pie on one page, for example, goes with a George Bernard Shaw quotation on the facing page: “There is no love sincerer than the love of food.” Thankfulness to Color is a pleasant enough book, and one that fans of Ingram’s intricate art – which always looks good even before color is added – will like. It is, however, a more thematically and seasonally limited book than some of her others, and families will likely enjoy it most if they find a way to use it as a harbinger of Thanksgiving or an element of their celebration of the holiday itself.

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