December 23, 2021


Peek-Through Picture Books: The Twelve Days of Christmas; Tree; Bee; Moon; Ocean; Home. By Britta Teckentrup. Text by Patricia Hegarty. Doubleday. $14.99 (Christmas); $16.99 each (Tree, Bee, Moon, Ocean, Home).

     One of the cleverest marriages of design and content for children in recent years, Britta Teckentrup’s Peek-Through Picture Books started out in 2014 with a seasonal work that loses not one iota of its charm over time. Teckentrup’s illustrations for The Twelve Days of Christmas use a time-honored children’s-book design element – pages with cutouts – in exceptionally attractive ways. Adults can see how the book works by starting at the back, where there is a well-laid-out page showing all 78 items given by “my true love” on the 12th day of Christmas. Working forward from that final page, specific items are masked on earlier pages: one page back, the 12 drummers drumming cannot be seen; two pages back, the 11 pipers piping are also missing; and so on. The sizing and placement of the different items, and Teckentrup’s charming art, make this whole approach work exceptionally well – and of course, for the children for whom the book is intended, it is to be read forward, not backward, with each new item revealed as if by magic. There really is something magical in this well-thought-out use of exceptionally well-designed cutout pages, which start on the book’s cover with the partridge in a pear tree visible between a cute boy-and-girl elf couple (who adorn all the pages in various locations and poses).

     Teckentrup was clearly onto a good thing here, as shown in the Peek-Through Picture Books created in succeeding years: Tree (2015), Bee (2016), Moon (2017), Ocean (2019), and Home (2020, but just released in late 2021). The basic format remains the same for all the books, with the nature-focused ones showing increasing subtlety in what is presented and how: Ocean, for example, has a cover and opening page with three cutouts showing fish, while the other books have the same single-cutout cover used in The Twelve Days of Christmas; that single cutout is centered for Tree and Bee, but appears higher on the cover and opening page in Moon; and there are various other book-to-book changes as well.

     These comparatively modest modifications aside, the Peek-Through Picture Books manage to keep to their original formula while varying their content and appearance so pleasantly that kids will return to them again and again for the sheer enjoyment of the revelatory pages. Teckentrup’s art is clearly the dominant element in all the books, but Patricia Hegarty complements it very well indeed with nicely composed rhymes for the later books, after Teckentrup uses the words of the classic Christmas song for the first one. In every book, Teckentrup chooses topics to illustrate with considerable skill. Tree initially shows an owl within the tree, then two bear cubs climbing the tree as winter turns slowly toward spring, and then other animals: “Squirrels scamper here and there./ Playful fox cubs sniff the air.” The squirrels are accurately shown amid the tree branches, the foxes romping on the ground below. Later cutouts reveal birds and pollinating bees, and eventually, as the seasons continue to change, the tree itself changes, bearing fruit (apples) and eventually losing its leaves for another winter – by which time all the cutouts are finished and even the owl is no longer seen. Then the owl peeks out again at the end of the book, and the cycle begins anew.

     Teckentrup handles the other books with similar skill. Bee opens with a hexagonal cutout that becomes central to various pages showing birds, trees and flowers as the bee goes about its life: “Dusty with pollen, the little bee/ Buzzes, buzzes, busily” – and at this point, there is no cutout at all, even though the book is nowhere near the end. Turn the page, and the hexagonal cutout is there again, but now in a new position, suitable for continuing the story of the bee carrying pollen back to the hive and alerting other bees about nectar-heavy flowers. And then, several pages later, suddenly there are multiple cutouts, each showing a different bee, until there is an entire swarm producing “a tiny miracle,” with the book concluding, “So many plants and flowers you see/ Were given life by one small bee.”

     Then, in Moon, Teckentrup starts the book with a narrow crescent, cleverly having the moon get larger page after page without changing the size of the cutout: it all has to do with what she shows adjacent to the cutout, which on one page is a dark sky and on another is an additional portion off the moon itself. Eventually there is a full moon – no cutout on the page – and then, as the book continues, the cutout is used on the left-hand page rather than the right-hand one, so the full moon gradually shrinks on the pages just as it does in the sky. And at the very end, on another page with no cutout, Teckentrup enlarges the now-crescent moon above a scene that she illustrates to Hegarty’s concluding words: “Shining down with a silvery glow/ As we dream our dreams in the world below.”

     Like Tree, Bee and Moon, Teckentrup’s Ocean focuses on animals, and here the cutouts are even more varied than before. Each of the three on the cover carries through to the opening page – the page before the title page – but the title page itself reproduces two of the three fish as drawings without cutouts through which to see them, leaving only a single fish visible through a single cutout. As the book progresses, the use of cutouts changes again and again. The fish swims along, and then there is a second cutout, through which a seahorse is seen. Then that cutout disappears, but the first cutout is now joined by a different second one, through which a smaller fish is visible. The narrative, meanwhile, deals sometimes with fish seen through cutouts (such as the seahorse) and sometimes with ones portrayed elsewhere on the page: “A baby dolphin swims with its mother./ They leap and dive around each other.” Later in the book, there are pages with no cutouts at all, but with some very well-done art: on one page, multicolored tropical fish swim along in the shape of a single, much bigger fish. And then a few small cutouts reappear toward the end, highlighting additional fish and underlining an ecological message about the importance of oceans.

     The latest book, Home, again takes the cutouts in new directions. There is a large one in the middle of the cover, showing a big bear and a small bear in the den they call home. But in this case, the cutout does not carry through into the book’s pages at all: open the book and there are introductory lines from Hegarty on the book’s topic. After the title page, though, the den-entrance-shaped cutout returns, and now the small bear and the human reader are looking out, from the cave toward a tree in which sits an owl (likely as not the one first seen in Tree). And as the bear cub explores, as the cubs did in Tree, the cutouts here are used in ways that are quite different from those in the earlier books. Cutouts create pine-tree shapes; one cutout actually removes a portion of the entire top of a page; another removes a different page’s lower-right corner, while a kidney-shaped one on that same page reveals a bird flying; and the art is arranged so that on one page, the bear cub is looking from the bottom left side of the left-hand page toward birds’ nests, while on another page, the cub (thanks to that missing corner) is looking toward a river where salmon swim and splash. Cutouts reveal underground burrows, Arctic terns flying toward their distant home, and more – and some cutouts, small round ones, reveal nothing but the color white, which turns out to mean that these are snowflakes. And sure enough, as Home nears its end, the cub is back in its cave den, ready to sleep until spring – as if a year in the forest has passed as surely as a year did in Tree. Like the earlier books, Home beautifully combines carefully rendered scenes from nature with well-chosen rhyming words to form a poetic story that is at once wide-ranging and clearly focused on its titular topic.

     Although the Peek-Through Picture Books share basic design elements and Teckentrup’s artistic sensibilities, each of them looks different enough from the others so that the entire set has charms that go far beyond those of more-formulaic volumes using superficially similar visual approaches. Whether as individual books or as a group, Teckentrup’s volumes will continue to engage and enlighten young readers through multiple readings – something that most other books with special designs fail to do, since their novelty wears off quickly. This is a very special series both in content and in appearance.

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