Friday, February 21, 2014

Without A Word: Journey by Aaron Becker

It is a sepia sort of day, on a drab street where even the traffic light can't quite manage to be red. A lonely girl slumps on the stoop in a tableau in which the only color is her red scooter leaning against the stairs and a red chalk in a boy's hand on the street.

Inside, Mom yaks on the kitchen phone and stirs up something in a large stew pot. The girl takes her red kite hopefully to Dad, who is hunched over his computer. Her sister ignores her red ball as she punches at her iPad. Ignored. the girl flops like an abandoned rag doll on her bed. But when her snoozing cat suddenly stirs and stalks out the door, the girl sees a red chalk in the spot the cat just left.

Suddenly animated, the girl draws a rounded red door on her wall. It opens and she runs through it, emerging from a wide and tall tree into a green-gray forest lit by Japanese lanterns, where she follows a road to a stream. There she draws herself a red rowboat, and the adventure is on.

Down canals to a fairy-tale castle she floats, and inside a walled citadel, where a series of locks lift her boat higher and higher, until a sluice ends in a waterfall. Improvising as she falls, the girl draws a red hot air balloon, which floats over a series of robotic steampunk vehicles and armored defenders,
until she spots an imprisoned rose-colored bid of paradise. Freeing it from its gilded cage, the girl lets it fly away as she is captured and herself imprisoned.

But the bird returns, bearing in its beak--the red chalk,  with which the girl draws a crimson flying carpet, which flies back to the door in the tree, which opens out as the postman's locked door on a mailbox, back onto the sepia street, where she meets the boy, this time with a rose-colored chalk to match the bird. Together they draw two circles which become a tandem bike which takes them (and the bird) away together, page right, into what the reader supposes to be more adventures.

In a medium such as mine, made for words, where there is no dialogue to quote and the only illustration allowed is a book cover, it is hard to do justice to a book like Aaron Becker's Journey (Candlewick Press, 2013). But now that Becker's little tour de force has been awarded a Newbery Honor Medal, it is getting the attention it deserves. Becker's illustrations are inventive, with ordinary story book people, in an almost surrealistic world that reveals more than is usually seen. Becker's story moves inerrantly left to right. Walls can be solid or transparent to what lies inside or below, and his paintings of the castle and the cloud-borne mechanical inhabitants are quite detailed, quaint, yet surprising. It is a modern, dreamlike outing built upon the same premise as Crockett Johnson's classic Harold and the Purple Crayon, 50th Anniversary Edition (Purple Crayon Books) a quite avant garde piece of meta-fantasy in its own time in its own way. Becker's fantasy takes advantage of the advances in picture book art and printing since, which allow stunning layouts and almost cinematographic movement, while keeping the same sense of childlike openness to imagination and adventure.

"A masterwork," says The New York Times. "An imaginative adventure story whose elaborate illustrations inspire wonder, careful examination and multiple reads," adds Kirkus Reviews.

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