Sunday 18 November 2018

Shadow, by Suzy Lee, and The Wall In The Middle of this Book by Jon Agee, reviewed by Sarah Hammond

I was inspired to review these two books by an outstanding picture book dummy workshop I attended recently, run by Laura Montenegro. The focus of the class was the ‘gutter’ of the picture book. As a general rule, book designers keep images and words well away from the gutter (that is, the inside margin on bound books) so they do not disappear into the crack. However, in these two inventive and original picture books, the gutter is an integral part of the story. 

Shadow, an almost wordless picture book by Suzy Lee, uses it horizontally. With the click of a light switch, we discover a little girl in the attic on the upper page, and below the gutter the shadows of the attic objects are reflected on the lower page. A young reader would have fun matching up each object to its shadow. 

Our protagonist shapes her hands to make a shadow bird on the attic floor. This shadow reflection take on a yellow hue and, through the girl’s imagination, begins to develop a life of its own. The story becomes a celebration of creativity as the shadow world grows richer and richer. The little girl immerses herself in her imaginative play, literally diving into the shadow realm on the lower pages of the book. 

The story ends as it began as the little girl goes down for dinner and, with the click of a light switch, the attic is in darkness once more. Or is it?

By contrast, Jon Agee’s The Wall In The Middle Of This Book, uses the gutter vertically to insert a wall division between pages. A knight on the left page is pleased with this wall as it keeps the scary animals (and, we later discover, an ogre) safely contained on the right page of the book. 

However, the reader begins to notice that all is not as it originally seemed. The scary animals on the right pages appear to be frightened by a mouse, and slowly but surely a body of water with lurking sea monsters is rising up the left pages…

Readers will enjoy spotting these changes and the developing visual stories that unfold on either side of the wall. From an adult perspective, I loved the satisfying conclusion that assumptions about the need for walls, and the ‘bad’ creatures on the other side of them that need containing, might not be correct after all.

Both books encourage readers to engage in a fresh way -- the movement and tension of the stories depend on the physical shape and design of the book. Although for different reasons, both stories celebrate the journey to the page beyond the gutter, to adventure and exploration albeit within the age-appropriate safe realm of a picture book. This makes for a satisfying read on many levels.


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