There’s something about space that hits adult graphic designers deep in the nostalgia gut. Maybe it’s a remnant of the Sixties or a kitschy awe of all things simultaneously futuristic and retro, but space travel in picture books tends to be a pretty cool affair when paired with the right illustrator. I’ve seen this theme explored in everything from computer graphics to deep-hued acrylics but I think that this is the very first time that I’ve seen it tackled with the aid of engravings. I don’t suppose I should be surprised, though. Chris Gall broke onto the children’s literary scene with his book “America the Beautiful”. It was followed up by the surprisingly surreal, not to say gorgeous, Dear Fish. Now Mr. Gall turns his eyes heavenward and presents a tale of everyday boredom in an uncommon place. “There’s Nothing to do on Mars,” belies its own title, proving that when it comes to young children, boredom is entirely in the eye of the beholder.
No kid likes to move. Not really. And when Davey Martin finds out that his family is moving from their nice normal Earth home to a place on Mars, he knows that certain boredom is bound to follow since, “there was nothing to do on Mars.” Outer space has a lot of similarities to Earth, though. For one thing, if a kid walks around saying, “I’m bored!” at the top of their lungs then their parents are probably going to yell back, “Go out and play!” as Davey’s do. With his faithful robot dog Polaris by his side the two climb eerie trees sporting the rare yellow eyeball, build forts with lightning quick ease (thanks to the low gravity), dance with stinky Martians, and dig holes. One hole in particular. A hole that leads to a gusher of water, rendering the dry and dusty surface of Mars a veritable ocean. Of course with water comes tourists and with tourists comes industry. So before you know it, Davey’s parents are packing up to go live on Saturn. And, as everyone knows, “there was NOTHING to do on Saturn!”
A resident of Tucson, Arizona, it’s possible that Mr. Gall didn’t have to go far to find inspiration for the crevices and valleys of his red-tinged Martian landscapes. All beauty aside (and the book really is a visual stunner) he does a couple slick things with his art here that are worth noting. To begin with, there is a small note on the publication page that reads, “The illustrations for this book were done by hand engraving clay-coated board and processing the result with the same space-age device used by NASA to help send men to the moon.” Curious. So curious, in fact, that I suddenly noticed that in addition to this the font was, “set in ITC Benguiat Gothic, and the display type is Insignia.” Who notices fonts in picture books anyway? But when I took a closer look I couldn’t help but notice that this font WAS rather remarkable. It looks like the kind of thing you’d expect to find on the spacecraft in the movie “Alien” or on printed instructions from HAL in “2001: A Space Odyssey”. You have to admire that level of craftsmanship.
It’s the little details that’ll stay with you, though. Aside from the overall gorgeous nature of the engravings, Gall is thoughtful enough to give Davey such common everyday accoutrements as jeans and sneakers (shoelaces untied). The huge bug-eyes on Polaris reminded me of nothing so much as Bender, the robot on the TV show, “Futurama”. Unintentional, perhaps, but a nice little touch. The endpapers are fun too. They consist of “Davey Martin’s Mars Journal (Top Secret!)”. Lots of fun space facts meld with personal notes like, “I’m BORED of red things.” Mind you, I’m reviewing this book from a galley so I’m sure the little portion that calls Pluto a planet will have long been corrected prior to publication. Readers will have to decide for themselves how to look at the Martians in this book, though. They conduct a rain dance and one looks suspiciously like Kokopelli. An odd little choice.
All that aside, a closer inspection of the book reveals hidden beauties. Did you see the copy of Gall’s previous picture book “Dear Fish” sitting inside the Martin home? Did you find the “face” of Mars appearing repeatedly on the landscape (my favorite being the profile)? Best of all, I though Gall was fairly subtle when the opening shot of the Martin trailer takes off from their previous home. If you look closely you’ll see that Davey was basically a farm boy until urban construction began to encroach on his family’s pastoral bliss. The fact that the same thing happens on Mars at the end of the story is a nice callback to this earlier shot. Ditto the very brief view of moons Phobos and Deimos in the background of one of the scenes.
The story works and the entire book is a novel take on standard picture books tackling child boredom. With its fifties futuristic look and otherworldly feel, “There’s Nothing to do on Mars” should make a good pairing with other spacey titles like Moonpowder by John Rocco and pretty much anything written by William Joyce. A classic vision handled with a visual medium that doesn’t usually go sci-fi, this is bound to be a favorite of burgeoning young space cadets, old and young. Lovely to look at. Lovely to read.
On shelves February 1st.
Other Blog Reviews: Booktopia
Misc: An interview with author/illustrator Chris Gall.