Keep Your Eye on the Kid: The Early Years of Buster Keaton
By Catherine Brighton
Flash Point, a Roaring Brook imprint, a Holtzbrinck division.
On shelves April 1st.
Non-fiction Monday, y’all! Picture Book of the Day has the round-up.
Have you ever seen an author go about their merry way, making books, minding their own business when BLAMMO they suddenly come out with a title that knocks everyone’s socks off? I’m sure you have. The thing is, I’m sure that author/illustrator Catherine Brighton put just as much effort into her previous books ( My Napoleonl&t=title"> Fossil Girl and The Fossil Girl amongst others) as she did her newest title, Keep Your Eye on the Kid: The Early Years of Buster Keaton. Be that as it may be, this book is far and away one of the most impressive picture book biographies I’ve stumbled over in a very long time. It’s a visual stunner that somehow manages to tell the story of Buster Keaton’s life without prettying up the past or gumming up the facts. Even if you have never read a picture book biography that blew you away, this title will redefine how you think about faithful biographies for kids. To say nothing of how fun it is.
He was born into a troupe of traveling show people, and the stage was always his home. “I sat on frogs’ knees and I talked to wooden dummies while Dad and Mom did their act.” It didn’t take long before Buster (so nicknamed for a fall or “buster” he took when he was very young) got in on the business himself. He’ll tell you a tornado sucked him out of his home, plopping him on Main Street, and maybe that could account for how well he could take a fall. In time it was movies that earned his real love. After pairing up with Fatty Arbuckle the two went on to create films together, thereby launching Buster on the path to fame, fortune, and stardom later down the line.
If I were to condemn an author I knew to a life of unending woe and sorrow, I would probably tell them that they could only write faithful picture book biographies of complex people for the rest of their days. Not everyone can do it, you know. It’s an art. Somehow, you have to synthesize a person’s entire LIFE into 32 pages. On top of that, you have to be honest and not fudge the facts, while at the same time keeping your book kid-friendly and appropriate. And what if, like Buster Keaton, your hero had a lousy childhood? What then? Well take a couple tips from Catherine Brighton here. First of all, she was smart enough to limit her scope to “The Early Years of Buster Keaton”. Now Keaton didn’t have the happiest of childhoods, but Brighton doesn’t skirt the issue. She tells this story in the first person, Keaton’s point of view, with simple sentences. The book doesn’t say that his father was a bad person, but at the same time adult readers will note that this was a dad who threw his son across a stage regularly and kept the family moving so that they could avoid child-labor laws. Some might accuse the novel of approaching this history without enough emotion, but like Keaton’s deadpan stage face, it doesn’t take much to delve beneath the surface and get a true feeling for Keaton’s wants and needs. The Author’s Note at the back clears up any confusion a person might have after reading this tale, but the story itself is the perfect blend of text and image. There are never more than three sentences on a given page, and yet we get a full sense of Buster’s career right from the start.
The art complements the action so completely that it’s hard for me to know how to begin to describe it. First of all, when Brighton recounts two of the stories that Keaton told about himself (being sucked out of a window by a tornado and “taking a buster” in front of Harry Houdini), the accompanying picture takes on a myth-like quality. Little Keaton wears his standard unsmiling face in both of these instances, making it feel as if they’re simply part of the larger movie that is his life. Little details are spotted throughout such pictures as well. I loved the glimpse of Struwwelpeter (a German children’s book that made a mockery of morality tales) we get as Keaton lands on Main Street. Or the way the date of Buster’s birth soars towards the reader from the porch of a rooming house, which in turn is framed to look like a movie screen right from page one.
Brighton’s style is akin to that of David Wiesner. She uses similar crisp clean lines, but while Wiesner likes to look at shading and tones, Brighton prefers an elegant two-dimensional quality. She loves her angles and dimensions. The perspective in this book is impressive as well. Sometimes you’ll be looking down on the action and at other times you’re on the level. Brighton borrows some comic book techniques as well, incorporating them seamlessly into the whole. Sometimes words will appear on a page to highlight the action. When Buster and his dog fly into the street there is an accompanying “WOOOSH!” with letters that hang in the air, as physical and tangible as the pup above them. Generally Brighton prefers single words in a scene. “FACE!” “OUT” “MAGIC”, to name a few. That’s not her only homage to the comic form either. Occasionally on the top of the page thin panels will show trains moving in various states and at various times, indicating Keaton’s life on the road. In fact, if you page through the book and watch for the train you can almost see it become the one that bursts through Keaton’s house as he films a scene from One Week. Incredible. And on a fourth or a fifth reading you can see other trains playing a part in Keaton’s life. There’s even one on the cover (responsible for his nickname, perhaps?).
Brighton likes to repeat her images as well. When young Buster gets sucked out of his window by a tornado he falls through a window in a manner very similar to older Buster’s well-known gag with the falling wall (where he remains uncrushed because of a door). Also, when Buster as a child sees a train coming towards an audience in a film (thereby frightening the people who didn’t understand movies yet), that pairs brilliantly with the moment where we see Keaton filming a scene where he is blasted aside as a train plows through his ramshackle house. A colleague of mine pointed out that Brighton is paying quite a bit of homage to Windsor McKay’s Little Nemo with this book, and once she pointed that out I couldn’t help but see it. The same blank-faced child. The same penchant for surreal flights of illustrative fancy.
Can I praise the Bibliography too, while I’m at it? Now I happen to feel that even the smallest picture book deserves a good Bibliography and I can see that Ms. Brighton is inclined to agree. Not only does she give Some Sources for further Keaton reading but she’s even careful to include a list of Some Films that are Keaton movies currently available on DVD. Not all his work is yet available in that format, so it’s good of her to indicate what you CAN see rather than taunt you with what you cannot.
It’s odd to me that there aren’t more bios of silent film stars out there for kids. I mean, silent comedies are just as funny to children as they are to adults. Ipso facto, shouldn’t the stories about the people who made them be fun? I’ve had kids ask me for Charlie Chaplin books before, but there just isn’t that much stuff out there. So kudos to Brighton for her choice in this matter.
This book begins with a mildly tweaked quote from a placard that comes at the beginning of the film, Sullivan’s Travels, (which is such a great movie anyway). It reads, “To the memory of those who made us laugh: the motley mountebanks, the clowns, the buffoons, in all times and in all nations, whose efforts have lightened our burden a little, this picture (book) is affectionately dedicated.” No clown could ask for a higher honor than a book of this nature. Droll, witty, beautiful, and factual, it fulfills every requirement you could have of a picture book biography, rewarding us every time we read and reread it. Truly amazing. Truly fantastic.
See the Buster Keaton film One Week right here for further reference.