Believe it or not, sometimes I get a little tired of picture books. The tiny little morality plays, the brightly-colored cartoon children and their brightly-colored antics... I only read about twenty of these things a week, you'd get a bit jaded too.
But then Elisha Cooper comes out with a new book (or Marla Frazee or Oliver Jeffers or Linda Smith or Lane Smith or...) and I am starstruck again, savoring every word, staring deep into the witty detail of each drawing, and, in Cooper's case, kind of wondering how the heck he DOES that - that thing with his pencil, how a little wavery line is a cat, or a kid, or a cloud, or a tractor.
Let me back up. This book deserves a little perspective. Lord knows Elisha Cooper has employed it - about half the pages in this yearlong portrait of a family farm are long, lean landscapes, full of sky, with an inch of flat earth at the bottom of the page. Have you ever been out in the true Midwest? It is a marvel to me that such an astringent landscape can be so luxurious in color and texture, as if the sky has to put on a better show to compensate for the lack of earthly features. It suits Cooper's style - in books such as A Good Night Walk and Beach, his large, clean forms kept his little wiggly details from ever looking fussy, and the little wiggly details kept the large volumes from looking too austere.
Barn : bean as Big : little.
Not to slight the text. Cooper is
as talented almost as talented a writer as he is an artist, and his narrative choices reflect the same little/big aesthetic as his drawings do.
After a storm, the farm swells with sound. The corn rustles. The cattle bellow. A tractor echoes in and out. Birds quarrel. Bugs hum. Their hum is constant.
This language is plain and calm but never boring. There's too much going on for it to be boring: the boy throws tomatoes at birds, the cattle poop. The imagery - "The rows look like wet hair just after it's combed" - is beautifully apt, domestic and understated, and above all, authentic. Very authentic: the family loses a rooster in September, the farmer uses pesticide and fertilizer, and some of the chipmunks don't make it across the road. You almost expect a little sketch of the farmer meeting with a banker.
To sum up, here are some of the things that I love about this book:
- the cats that have names
- skinny wavery green beans
- hay bales like a crumbling ziggurat
- a rooster, seemingly deep in thought but really just standing there
- the girl reading in the barn