May 20, 2017

Du Iz Tak? Illustrations make all the Difference!

Candlewick Press, 2016

Whether you are new to this blog or a regular reader, the title of my blog should make it obvious that I value picture books far beyond their appeal as entertainment, concepts, stories, or information. I love picture books that accomplish any or all of the above, but especially so when they trigger brainwaves firing faster than any video game or other device could accomplish. That quality, in fact, is the basis for my many arguments that the true, wide audience for picture books is NOT limited to early ages.

Wordless books (examples here) often have that effect, as do books that require manipulation or physical engagement (examples here). In the case of this featured title, hold on to your brainwave caps and prepare for fun. 
DU IZ TAK? is written and illustrated by Carson Ellis. In addition to it's visual appeal and narrative, it's also an homage to communication and communities. In this case it's a community of fanciful, insect-y creatures who share a common language, but not one we would recognize. It works for any language, which I found to be particularly appealing in this image of the cover of the Chinese version, here.
This book received a 2016 CALDECOTT HONOR and starred reviews from KIRKUS, PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, and HORN BOOK, among many other well-deserved accolades. I hadn't intended to write a post about it because the glowing commentaries from voices more widely circulated than mine were numerous, and they included so many of the points I would have made here. 
And yet...
When I checked it out of the library for a second time, I realized there were so many rich ways to consider the depth of this book. There are sub-plots and visual narrative threads dealing with life cycles of plants and animals, with predator/prey interactions, with collaboration, communication, creative play, cause-effect chains, observation/inquiry models, and habitats in which communities abide.

Young readers (and older ones) come to various conclusions about how the invented language should be "translated". In general, many have arrived at this conclusion:

"Du iz tak?" translates as "What is that?"  
"Ma nazoot." translates as "I don't know."

But even the use  of traditional punctuation leaves openings for dramatic differences of interpretation. Yes, the little critters' faces and their evolving scenes offer a degree of likelihood as to what they would be saying, but that is minimal. 

Let's just try those two lines with various attitudes attached:
What is THAT? (surprise? fright? excitement?)
What IS that? (revulsion, annoyance, irritation?)
WHAT is THAT? (shock, anxiety, demanding?)

and the possible responses:
I don't KNOW. (reflecting surprise, frustration, concern?)
I don't know. (annoyance, avoidance, confusion, even worry?)
I DON'T know. (denial, argument, irritation?)

And each page turn opens up additional options for assigning personalities and attitudes to each speaker. Which is to say, this is book that has a powerful effect on all readers, from the opening green, life-saturated endpapers to the final ones, and including each spread within the covers. The final spread presents the copyright/dedication but includes the dapper, mustachioed little caterpillar uttering his final "ta-ta!". 
I realized, after repeatedly examining page after page, that it was likely his smugness that drew me back to check it out again. That little dude seemed to know that there is no saying good-bye to this book. I encourage you to read it again, if you are already familiar with this winning book, or discover it for yourself and form your own opinions about these remarkable little chatters.
You won't regret it, and if you translate lines differently, I welcome your interpretation in the comments.

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