With humor and gusto these two picture books offer well-illustrated views on coping with flora and fauna. Both use water based media and line to effectively dramatize the exploits of endearing vegetables and repugnant arachnids. Scale changes, fine line work, and expressive layouts embellish the characters’ strong emotions and lessons are consequently learned.
I asked friends – Bonnie who was headed for Hong Kong and Dominique and Paul who were aiming for Paris – if they would each buy a picture book for me by local authors and illustrators. That request yielded these two charming books. Paul and Dominique found Comment Ratatiner les Araignées? (How to Shrivel Spiders?) at a museum shop when they attended an amazing exhibit by Tomás Saraceno at the Palais de Tokyo. Part of the Saraceno exhibit was a display of many spider webs the artist had encouraged and worked from, hence the connection with this picture book.
Since I speak neither French (shame on me, as I am of French Canadian descent!) nor Chinese, online translation help is responsible for the paraphrases of the French used here. For help with the book from Hong Kong I emailed a friend originally from there. Yoong replied that, “The title seems to be about recognizing or understanding broccoli, probably touting the benefits of broccoli to young children. It looks like a series of books for children about vegetables (some characters at the top left say it is part of a series on the vegetable garden).” Despite its didactic theme, the artwork is surprisingly delicate and inventive.
Both books have clever endpapers. Unlike books with solid colored endpapers that are separate sheets added during the binding process, these two have self ends, meaning that the first and last pages of the interior matter are actually glued to the covers. This means that they can be decorated along with the rest of the content, which allows the endpapers to initiate the story. For a more complete explanation of self ends see this article.
Here Miss Broccoli (not sure of her actual name) shows her tools for understanding nature as if they were a gift. And in art that involves careful brushstrokes and color gradients she shows the unified essences of the natural world. She wants the reader to see the connections.
No one would argue with the text: “Spiders are scary creatures, often black and hairy, full of paws, horrible! Just to see them is to want to shrivel them …“ There is something about those little beady pupils and big yellow eyes color matched to the salacious drool. That spider spans the double page spread, obviously a threat to be dealt with.
The veggie characters react to a comment that is illustrated using imagery which relies on negative space to show solid form. The eggplant, daikon, taro and others seem incredulous. At the bottom of the gutter a bok choi wearing glasses adds his question to the discussion.
Regarding spiders, advice is given: “They sneak around, run on the floor, grind along the walls and down from the ceiling, hanging on their wire … Courage! Better not to faint from fear … They would pecipitate all on you!“ And that a flashlight can make them shrink into the shadows. Good to know.
The white of the page and dramatic layouts are used to good advantage in both books. Here a swash of greens separates the characters from the garden that is neatly planted with vegetables that look amazingly like the characters in the story. Visual tension is created by Miss Broccoli‘s determined or angry expression and the giggling of the bespectacled bok choy and companion.
The sky, house and spiky white spiderweb echo the stalagtites, stalagmites and icicles of the frigid bedroom. Round shapes – the soccerball, bicycle wheel and fishbowl – help visually connect the two pages. The lush green of the summer page nicely ridicules the boy‘s jacket and the teeny suitcase of the spider who is being chased to a neighbor‘s house by the lack of heat in the boy‘s.
Here the rhythm of patterns rendered in varying tones and the central negative space, and even the comment bubbles, create unity–an impression of interconnected nature. Insects with white bulging eyes crawl, nap and flitter across the spread in a productive invasion. The characters‘ expressions indicate their new grasp of this fertile garden.
Meanwhile the spider picture book ends on a note of irony. After a bookful of lessons on how to defeat spiders, this last spread conveys that, “Before crushing a spider, try one last feat: look it in the face for a minute … She curls up and she’s scared …. She does not want to attack you and wonders why you, the giant, you can chase her. She was just trying to eat flies, mosquitoes, centipedes, woodlice and bedbugs … All these critters are likely to end up in your house if there is not a single spider to shrivel!” Careful what you wish for.
Many thanks to Bonnie, Dominique, and Paul for helping with my literary shopping and to Egils Zarins for his photographic skills.