It seems like such an obvious notion that I’m more than a little shocked that other publishers haven’t dived into the idea first. Step One: Locate a book of children’s poetry. Say, "Nightmares: Poems to Trouble Your Sleep", by Jack Prelutsky (circa 1976). Step Two: Say to the author of the poetry (if that person still happens to be alive, of course), "Gee whiz. Wouldn’t it be great if we made that old poem of yours, `The Wizard’, into its own picture book?" Acquire permission to do so. Step Three: Find an up-and-coming illustrator. Someone you’ve worked with before who you’re fairly certain will end up the Next Big Thing. Step Four: Observe your clever idea hitting the New York Times bestseller list and smile at how logical and easy this entire process was. Is this simplifying things a bit? Yup. But when I saw "The Wizard" by Jack Prelutsky in its full glory I realized just how ripe the market is for this kind of poetry picture book. Douglas Florian and various Shel Silverstein heirs may wish to consider the advantages to this kind of artistry. Add in current Greenwillow baby Brandon Dorman and you’ve got yourself a book that’s primed to win more than a few fans ASAP.
From the benign fellow on the cover you might think that this was a cheery tale of your average everyday wizardy fellow. Not so. As we learn right from the start, "The wizard, watchful, waits alone / within his tower of cold gray stone / and ponders in his wicked way / what evil deeds he’ll do this day." Down below sits a happy little cluster of houses, while up in the nearby tower the wizard turns his attention to a frog. He changes it into a pair of mice, a cockatoo, a small cockatoo, chalk, a silver bell, and then finally a frog again. Then, just when the poor thing is about to escape, the frog is at last turned into a cloud of thick smoke. Now fully amused, the wizard takes note of the kids down below and we are warned, "Should you encounter a toad or a lizard / look closely … it may be the work of a wizard." A telltale chameleon sitting on a skateboard suggests as much.
We’re at the point right now where CGI needs to figure out where it wants to go. Is there any reason to create art on a computer when it just ends up looking like paint on a canvas? Maybe so, if the result is as natural and enticing as that of Brandon Dorman. I seriously doubt that anyone who picked up this book on a whim would leap to the conclusion that it was done entirely digitally. Indeed, there’s been a lot of care taken with these images. The two-page spread I was particularly fond of involved the moment when the Wizard changed a cockatoo into a section of chalk. A rainbow-swirled piece sits neatly on some stone as the old man’s cracked and blackened fingernails delicately reach to pick it up. Taking into consideration Dorman’s eye for light, textures, and details, this is wizardry of an entirely different sort.
Dorman’s Wizard is an odd fellow. Prelutsky makes it pretty clear right from the start that he’s a nasty nut. But though a supposedly "tangled beard hangs from his chin," Dorman chooses to go the Gandalf/Dumbledore route at first and give his wizard a smooth almost creamy kind of facial hair. Vanilla pudding wouldn’t be a bad description. Basically, the Wizard starts out looking like a nice guy, somewhat at odds with the writing. Only as the story continues do we notice how gnarled and gross his long fingernailed hands are. Yet as he turns a frog into a variety of objects and creatures, the man’s features begin to harden. By the time he stands in front of the window observing the now returned frog sitting on his fingertips, his eyes are definitely cold and his smile cruel. The end leaves you with few doubts as to what the villain’s next move will be. The text lacks the bone-chilling warnings of such poets as Shel Silverstein (I am still convinced that the gypsies will be after me any day now) but it’s strong enough to stand alone in this new set of packaging.
(CONTINUED IN PART TWO)