November 21, 2019
(+++) PICTURE PLEASURES
Can You See Me? By Mikhala Lantz-Simmons and Mohammad Rasoulipour. Andrews McMeel. $17.99.
Happy Hair. By Mechal Renee Roe. Doubleday. $16.99.
Good Night, Little Blue Truck. By Alice Schertle. Illustrated by John Joseph. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.
An exceptionally clever use of negative space – the artistic technique in which areas where nothing is drawn are perceived by viewers as creating a picture – is the concept underlying Can You See Me? Mikhala Lantz-Simmons and Mohammad Rasoulipour do something here that seems simple when seen but is difficult to pull off: they create illustrations using nothing but triangles, positioning the geometric shapes so they suggest (rather than show) a wide variety of animals. It is not a matter of the animals being camouflaged, or not exactly that – the animals are not actually there at all, but their appearances are filled in mentally by young readers, using the explanatory clues provided by the author/illustrators. The text is not up to the quality of the illustrations – the book reads as if Lantz-Simmons and Rasoulipour were so enamored of their artistic concept that they could barely be bothered with words – but it provides the minimum needed hints to help children decipher the drawings. For example, Lantz-Simmons and Rasoulipour show a large, downward-pointing triangle, next to each of whose upper points there are two smaller triangles, one of those being even smaller than the other. The text reads, “My large antlers can be a bother/ as I make my way/ from the woods to the water./ Can you see me?” This indicates that the triangle arrangement depicts the head of a deer or moose – it scarcely matters which – seen against a background of large triangles (representing mountains) and tiny airborne downward-pointing triangles (birds). Doing the entire book’s illustrations with triangles is really an impressive feat. Another page shows a large, downward-pointing triangle at the top of which are two smaller, upward-pointing ones that are clearly supposed to be ears: “Through the bush I sneak./ My bushy tail follows my leap./ Can you see me?” This is a fox, or at least a fox’s head (Lantz-Simmons and Rasoulipour do not attempt to show any animal’s full body). The words “Can you see me?” appear with every illustration, quite unnecessarily, but the illustrations themselves engage and enthrall readers again and again. Another shows a smaller version of the same shape used for the fox’s head floating between two much larger, downward-pointing triangles, with the words, “I use sound to navigate around./ Can you see me?” It is a bat, or at least a beautifully imagined suggestion of one. Some of the more-elaborate arrangements of triangles are particularly impressive – those representing a giraffe and a crocodile or alligator, for example – but even the simpler sets of triangles are interesting to see and fun to decipher.
Lantz-Simmons and Rasoulipour have created a picture book for the widest possible audience. Mechal Renee Roe, on the other hand, has made one for a very narrow group of children: African-American girls. Happy Hair, originally self-published in 2014, is intended to celebrate what used to be called “nappy hair” (there was a delightful children’s book with that very title by Carolivia Herron, illustrated by Joe Cepeda, but now some African-Americans find the term offensive). Like Can You See Me? with its repetitive title question, Roe’s book uses the same words with every illustration: “I love being me!” The pictures themselves simply show dark-skinned girls on one page, always with eyes closed, sporting various hairstyles, while the opposite page offers a few words of praise: “Full ’Fro,/ Cute Bow!/ I love being me!” “Smart Girl,/ Cool Curls!/ I love being me!” “Fresh Do,/ Too Cool!/ I love being me!” Speech balloons above each illustration add one-or-two-word comments, as if each girl is saying or thinking about her hair: “Cute crop!” “Blowout!” “Pattern wrap!” “Bomb braids!” The pictures are quite clearly the point here, being used to tell African-American girls that anything they do with their hair is great and that they will always look as well-put-together, nicely dressed and impressively made-up as the book’s illustrations, no matter what hairstyle they choose. The message of self-empowerment and personal pride is unexceptionable and in line with recommendations in innumerable picture books that kids simply be themselves and be true to their own feelings and appearance. This particular book is for one specific subset of kids, but it carries the same thoughts as ones intended for more-general audiences – or other specific ones.
John Joseph’s illustrations for Good Night, Little Blue Truck are “in the style of Jill McElmurry” and are intended to reach out as widely as hers do in other books, but they do not quite have the same touch of amusement that hers consistently deliver. Nevertheless, the book will be fun for kids interested in some amusing pictures of Little Blue interacting with and helping animals of all sorts. Alice Schertle makes this a bedtime story: the truck, with Toad at the wheel, heads home just as a thunderstorm is breaking, but truck and Toad soon find themselves with a number of guests in “their warm garage.” Goat asks to come into the shelter, Hen seeks “a nice safe place to hide” from the rain, Goose finds the storm “a little bit frightening,” Cow feels “safer here with you,” and so on. Eventually the garage is full of animals: “‘Beep-beep-beep!’ said Little Blue./ ‘There’s room for you, and you, and you./ Everybody gather round./ Thunder’s such a grumbly sound!’” Instead of sleeping through the night, though, the animals – along with Little Blue and Toad – listen to the storm as it moves through the area and then disappears. And then Little Blue gives a “bedtime ride” to the animals, dropping them off one by one at the places where they usually sleep. And finally, Little Blue and Toad return to the garage and go to sleep themselves. The narrative is easy to follow and will be especially appealing to very young children who are afraid of thunder and lightning: Schertle has Duck exclaim, at one point (and in all capital letters), “‘THUNDER’S JUST A NOISY RACKET!’” Joseph’s appealingly simple pictures help move the story along, and it is easy to see how parents can use the eventual dropping-off of the animals for their nightly rest as a way to get children to relax and go to sleep themselves – whether or not a thunderstorm has just blown through and blown over.