|Candlewick Press 2019|
Our recent astonishing spring rains, nearly Biblical in duration and volume, merit serious treatment. Flooding is generally disastrous.
Even so, a picture book can bring a degree of comfort, or at least diversion. With hurricane season building fast, here's a story to warm your heart and offer a sunny respite from the worst of storms.
NOAH BUILDS AN ARK is written by Kate Banks and illustrated by John Rocco. In this layered story the young boy Noah is a devoted naturalist who appreciates the various wildlife in his urban backyard. Banks writes a direct but appealing narrative, interspersed with lyrical word choice, strong verbs, and delightful figurative language:
"It started with a cloud peeping over the hill like a curious ghost."
"The sun snapped off its light. A curtain of darkness drew across the sky."
"The rain splashed down like silver swords thrown from heaven."
The text provides parallels between Noah and his parents: using tools, stocking up food, preparing for the worst. Once the storm sets in, Noah's indoor story reveals both the worry and the comfort of a family surviving a multi-day storm, depicted in charming spot illustrations. That clears the stage for expansive illustrations to reveal the parallels of outdoor survivors to indoor residents. The story is realistic and practical in many regards, although some kids will raise questions about the likelihood of these particular animals sharing close quarters for several days: Won't the toads each the insects?
These observations and questions open doors to discussions of intentionally stretching realism, extending and comparing readings and research in other genre, and determining themes for picture books.
Rocco's illustrations are luminous and nuanced, precise enough to verge on photographic, at times. The yard-dwelling creatures are not anthropomorphized, although alert and attentive. Young Noah and his family convey expressive features to suit the changing conditions throughout the story. Explorations of empathy and trust will spontaneously arise from these rich images and the engaging story.
The central character, Noah, wasn't the only thing that reminded me of a classic picture book.
THE SALMANDER ROOM is written by Anne Mazer and illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher. This book resembles NOAH BUILDS AN ARK in its illustration mastery of nature's plants and animals, of luminous focus and contrasting shadows, of shifting perspectives, angles, and distances, and of enhancing the text with layers of visual meaning. Originally published in 1994, it has been reissued in paperback, featured on Reading Rainbow, and read/discussed on You Tube, often.
There are so many ways to compare these two titles. Elements of the concrete story similarities and differences are only the first step. Explore the sensitive and attentive natures of the boys, their individual good intentions, and the surprising appeal of what are often considered yucky critters. The illustration techniques, effects, and page designs invite comparisons, too.
The books also abound in contrasts. Note closely the use of dialogue for parent-child interactions, including use/lack of dialogue tags. Overall these books, taken together, offer prime material for a variety of graphic organizing tools: from simple Venn diagrams to T-charts, to pro-con lists delineating personal preferences and offering supporting evidence for opinions.
Despite those opportunities for developing analytic skills, please do the creators of both books the justice they deserve. Each is a work of art and craft, worthy of a fluent, mindful reading without disruption by commentary. Only then, following some moments for reflection, should the stories and books themselves be discussed as literary works.
Finally, perhaps even days or weeks later, those analytic approaches are well-suited. But I urge you to keep the books readily available for readers to simply choose and repeat, examining and delighting in the remarkable power of well-crafted picture books.
Whether you are still recovering from Spring floods or anticipating hurricanes during summer months, or just looking for a great pair of picture books, I urge you to give these a try.