Wednesday, March 5, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #5: Lilli Carre' and Thereza Rowe

The hardcover comics aimed at new readers from Toon Books have always uniformly done two things well. First, the design has always been impeccable, making each book its own little unique art object. They're simply beautiful to look at. Second, they are rock-solid in terms of comics storytelling fundamentals. The two most recent books from Francoise Mouly's publishing collaboration with Candlewick Press, Hearts and Tippy and the Night Parade, are no exception. Each book is visually distinctive in its own way. Hearts, which was created by Thereza Rowe, features characters put together with cut paper on the page. It's an elegant and beautiful approach that compensates for the slight stiffness of its figures with a propulsive, exciting story. Like a film beginning its narrative with credits rolling over it, so does Hearts set up its book-long chase sequence with protagonist Penelope the fox having her heart broken when her friend leaves on a rocketship. The book consists of her losing her broken heart and chasing a variety of characters who briefly wind up with it, including dolphins, birds, a paper airplane, and a king and queen. This is a Level 1 Toon Book, so it's aimed at emerging readers, and thus the dialogue is quite simple and limited. That makes Rowe's spectacular and varied use of color in particular a crucial part of the storytelling. Indeed, having Rowe do a book injects a bit of the NoBrow aesthetic into the Toon Books line: clear, bright and colorful.

Lilli Carre's background in animation was obviously of great help to her in creating her first book for children. If Hearts was a race, then Carre's Tippy and the Night Parade is a slow and gentle procession, one that keeps looping around on itself. Like Hearts, the narrative for Tippy begins on the inside front cover, when we seed an odd procession of animals strolling across the page, until we see a bird sleeping on someone's head. It turns out to be the titular Tippy, whose room is a mess and filled with an odd assortment of animals and plants. Tippy remembers nothing but going to sleep, and then kicks the narrative into gear by imagining what she might have done: take a walk on the dock, get lost in the mist, hop across lily pads, fall in a big hole, go through a cactus patch, etc. Along the way, a variety of creatures start following her, until we wind up back at her house and precisely the same situation that started the book. Carre's use of dark blues for night is one of her trademarks; few cartoonists create a night as evocative and mysterious as hers. In this book, night is a welcoming blanket of wonder, albeit one that Tippy doesn't experience consciously. The fact that she's doing something a bit "bad" but doesn't remember the hows or whys is undoubtedly appealing to children. Once again, the simplicity of the narrative, pushing readers along a straight line that is actually more of a curve, makes it easy for them to understand what's going on and connect words to images. Toon Books is building a truly impressive library of books, as the savvy Mouly cultivates her connections in the worlds of children's literature, illustration and alternative comics to find the best possible candidates to create memorable books.

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