Saturday, June 28, 2008

Rambling about Emily Gravett

Holy cannoli, do I love Emily Gravett.

The books I suggested for this month are Orange Pear Apple Bear, Wolves, and Monkey and Me. They’re not a series or anything, but they do have a sort of attitude common. You know how a book can imply a particular type of reader by the way it says things? Gravett implies a reader who’s intelligent, and who’s interested in thinking, and who appreciates a wry sense of humor. These books aren’t garish or in-your-face; they’re subtle. They have layers.

In Monkey and Me, a girl and her stuffed monkey go “to see” various animals. You always have to turn over a page to see which animal comes next, but if you pay close attention, you can venture a guess before turning – because the girl and her monkey act out the next animal’s posture in advance. It may take a second read before you notice that their postures echo the real penguins, kangaroos, bats, elephants, and finally monkeys that follow.

Wolves is subtle. Wait, how can I call a book subtle when the protagonist gets eaten?! Hmm. It’s subtle because when it tips from meta-book (a book about a book) into real predator chasing prey, it never narrates that outer story. The text simply reveals facts about wolves, as chronicled in the inner book, which is checked out from the library by a rabbit. Here is the shift where the wolf escapes his book and comes hunting: on one spread, the inner book reports “They can survive almost anywhere: from the Arctic Circle…” [ellipses orig, wolves shown on a page of the library book]; the next spread continues “… to the outskirts of towns and villages.” Cheekily mimicking the word “outskirts,” the wolf is now on the exact outskirts of both books (the inner one and the one the reader is holding), leaning around an edge to peer at the rabbit reader. But the narration never says a word about this, counting on the drawings to show the truth. Visual scale tips and changes, the wolf sometimes looming far above the rabbit, so tall that it can’t fit on the page. There’s no doubt what happens to the small vulnerable rabbit after the now-mammoth wolf face zooms in to surround it. We see a tattered and scratched book cover, perhaps the site of a struggle. We see no more animals at all. The text says only that wolves have many types of prey, a listing that ends with “rabbits” but says nothing about any particular rabbit or any particular, erm, meal.

Lest that ending be too upsetting, Gravett provides an alternate ending, silly and comforting, where predator and prey share a jam sandwich. But even in that version, the wolf is now equally as real as the rabbit – not banished back inside that original library book. This seems respectful of readers, because it doesn’t imply that preferring the gentler ending makes a reader less intelligent. And in fact, in the jam sandwich ending, both characters look like they’ve been cut out of paper, subtly reminding the reader that the whole thing is a book anyway.

Orange Pear Apple Bear is a gem. Only five words total, and a quiet visual masterpiece. A bear eats fruit, and sometimes resembles it. Sure, we all knew the word “orange” was a noun and an adjective, but did we know that same thing about the word “apple”? Did we know what “apple” and “pear” would mean, as adjectives modifying a bear? Softly brilliant watercolor paintings are the soul of this book. Go look at it if you haven’t. Note the bear's facial expressions. It’s happy-making.

I have no conclusion. I’m just rambling. Gravett has wonderful respect for her readers. Her books wait for readers to come to them; they don’t scream for attention from across the room (bless them for that). Her books are full of energy, but sometimes the energy is wit.

If you’ve read them or even just one of them, please chime in! Disagree, agree, or start a whole nother Gravett thread. What do you like or dislike about Gravett? If you haven’t read any yet, hopefully you’re now inspired to. :)


kristin said...

I've just put all three on hold at the library. Amanda, I've also put the SVT book on hold, and had a conversation with a lovely librarian from Queens about it the other night, so eventually I'll have something to add to both your previous post and Rebecca's here! Yay, new books. Oh! Also! I picked up an arc of the new Melina Marchetta book at ALA (she's the Saving Francesca lady) and I'll let you all know how that is. Okay, blathering. It is 1:40 am and I need to go to bed.

Amanda said...

kristin, i look forward to hearing all about ALA! did you ever read looking for alibrandi, also by marchetta? i didn't love it like saving francesca, but it was still a great read.

Amanda said...

rebecca nicely sums up the gravett books. i like that her books are simple yet sophisticated (yes, it can happen!). there isn't a ton going on on each page--there is just the bear and his fruit, or the girl, her monkey, and the animals they become. even in wolves, which has lots of action (or implied action), the pages don't feel busy or jumpy. like rebecca points out, gravett assumes she has an intelligent audience, and this makes her books feel unique.

random things:
in wolves, i love all of the little details, like the postcards, library stamp, take-out menu, etc. the story certainly doesn't need all of that stuff, but it's so clever and makes the little rabbit's world feel so real. similarly, i thought the fruits (and cores/peels) on the endpapers of orange pear apple bear were a nice touch.

monkey and me was the only one callum showed much interest in (fun to share books with him). after the initial reading, he caught onto the "game" of it and would guess what animal was coming (sometimes stumped until he memorized the order, but always happy to shout out the animal's name when we turned the page). i love the little girl--her pigtails, her outfit, her spunk, and her imagination.

for rebecca and others who read these books, if you had to lump other authors or books in with gravett's, who/what would they be?

it was great fun to read some new picture books. any ideas for the next batch?