April 04, 2019
(++++) THE PLEASURES OF SIMPLICITY
Book Love. By Debbie Tung. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Ruby & Rufus Love the Water! By Olivier Dunrea. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $9.99.
Given the amount of complexity in the world – and in books for adults and children alike – it is a welcome change to discover occasional authors who present simple material in a simple way, leading to the simple delights of unalloyed enjoyment. Debbie Tung does that very neatly in Book Love, a sweet paean to the delights of reading and the elements of everyday life that are enhanced by it. There is no great drama here, nothing filled with strenuous exercise or major activity – just quotidian scenes of a woman (surely modeled on Tung herself), her husband, and the books with which they share their lives and with which the woman, in particular, interacts constantly. Book Love is filled with plain-and-simple niceness, a quality in far too short supply in our video-saturated, fast-moving age. Every page is a mini-story in cartoon form, usually four pleasantly drawn panels, on some aspect of the everyday life of a book lover. The expected cartoonish exaggerations are not, in this case, very exaggerated at all. On one page, for example, the woman thinks about wanting to buy some new books, “but I’m also running low on food,” and decides to “choose which one is more important.” The final, wordless panel shows her walking away from a bookstore carrying a gigantic stack of volumes. That is mildly and pleasantly amusing (“mild” and “pleasant” are appropriate adjectives for just about everything in Book Love), and really not far from the truth for book lovers: they may not buy books to the exclusion of food, but they may limit food purchases or stretch what they have to eat a bit so they can purchase a much-wanted volume, if not a whole stack of them. And while the woman in Book Love buys from charming local booksellers, real book lovers are more likely to order from Amazon.com or other online sources nowadays. But all this does is give a gently nostalgic twist to the charm of the small everyday events that Tung shows so lovingly. Even when she does use cartoon conventions, she does so with the clear intent to warm book lovers’ hearts: one page has a book talking to the woman, saying “read me” and “I know you want to read me” as she tries very hard to concentrate on something else, talking back to the book and saying she is busy working and has no time for reading it right now. Of course, the final panel – another wordless one – shows her reading avidly, her work put aside. That, minus the talking book, is an absolutely accurate portrayal of book lovers’ relationship with the necessities of life. Then there is the scene in which the woman and husband walk past a bookshop and he offhandedly asks her, “Are there any books you need?” After a moment’s thought (in yet another wordless panel: Tung uses these expertly), the woman replies, “That is a very dangerous question.” The gentle humor is only part of what makes Book Love so attractive: Tung also slips from time to time into outright advocacy, which is most welcome at a time when screens have supplanted books for so many people. For instance, she offers a series of panels called “Why Books Are the Best Gifts,” one of which shows a young girl sitting on her bed, holding a book tightly and smiling gently, above the caption, “The right book will have stories that stay with the reader forever.” That is a near-perfect encapsulation of the wonderfulness of books, and a lovely sentiment for Tung to share with other book lovers everywhere.
The usual complexity of today’s children’s books lies in the many busy activities in which characters engage, the sheer number of those characters, and the detail lavished on the drawings by illustrators determined to catch young readers’ eyes in an age when moving screen pictures are far more likely than books to be everyday fare. Against this trend are the “gosling” books of Olivier Dunrea: small-sized charmers featuring absolutely adorable goslings drawn almost (but not quite) realistically and shown having minor, thoroughly cute adventures through illustrations that keep the goslings front-and-center against a pure white background. The latest delightful entry in this always-delightful series is Ruby & Rufus Love the Water! The two title characters look identical, except that Dunrea shows Ruby wearing a red-and-white polka-dot bathing cap while Rufus wears a red-and-white striped one (no attempt at complete realism here!). The little illustrative touches in these books are always among their highlights: Ruby is first seen facing right and dripping water, while Rufus is introduced facing left and looking at a lovely blue butterfly that has landed on his beak. Like other two-gosling books by Dunrea, this one shows the mild ways in which the characters differ: Ruby does swan dives into the pond while Rufus does back dives, for example, and Ruby stands on her head underwater while Rufus chases fish. But in most of the book, the friends do things together, swimming during rain and in wind and generally having a fine time together on the pond they both love. Then one day it gets cold and snows, and the pond water freezes, leading Ruby to tap the ice with her bill while Rufus taps it with his foot. How can the friends play at the pond now? The answer is: very amusingly indeed. Dunrea’s pictures of Ruby taking giant steps on the ice while Rufus “slides across the ice on his chin” are just adorable, as is the view of the two of them scooting across the pond inside a red-and-white, doughnut-shaped pool float. Eventually what happens is – well, nothing very much: that is what makes Dunrea’s books so relaxing to read, since essentially all they offer is scenes of friendship and everyday not-quite-realistic gosling life. The last page here simply shows the two friends frolicking in the snow after apparently building a rather lumpy-looking snow gosling, which appears in the background and is another of the delicious little details that Dunrea scatters throughout the “gosling” books – definitely including Ruby & Rufus Love the Water!