I was working the reference desk of the library one day when a boy that couldn’t have been more than seven-years-old came up to me. He had that deadly serious look to his face that kids sometimes get when they want to impress upon you the importance of their request. Very politely he asked me for every single Javaka Steptoe book we had in the collection. I have to admit that I was a little surprised. We pretty much have all the man’s books, but when a kid requests an author or artist by name it tends to be pretty rote. Eric Carle or Mo Willems or Ezra Jack Keats. Even then, kids as young as seven usually ask for characters, not artists, so right off the bat I was impressed. I quickly yanked all the books off the shelf and handed them to the kid, wondering if maybe his parent had put him up to asking in the first place. But nope. That child sat down and inspected every single Javaka Steptoe book like they were the most precious possession he’d ever had the honor to handle. I like to think back to that kid sometimes whenever a new Steptoe book gets published, and I thought of it again recently when I picked up Rain Play by Cynthia Cotton. It’s a very brief, very simple rhyming tale of kids caught in a summer storm, and with Mr. Steptoe’s accompanying text it may well be a big hit with anyone who has ever done a dance in a drenching downpour or two.
On a warm summer day a bunch of kids hang out in a playground. “At the park / the sky grows dark.” Soon raindrops are falling and a lot of people take off. “Raindrops splatter / People scatter / But we stay / awhile and play.” Rain games and splashing commence for some, while others are content to capture the droplets in the curve of a single leaf. It isn’t until the lightning starts to flash that everyone takes off for the waiting car. At home parents bundle their kids up in towels, and then everyone goes to the window to watch the rain stop and the sun come out again.
I’ll be the first one to tell you that under normal circumstances, Steptoe’s art is not my style. He’s a good guy and takes care with his art, but books like The Jones Family Express just don’t do it for me. I’ve never really enjoyed paper collage. Is that a horrible thing to say? Even Eric Carle’s work does nothing to make my heart go ah-pitter pat much faster than its usual gelatinous beat. But I didn’t have to pick up Rain Play, you know. It was sitting in my boss’s office (he gets all the good stuff) in a pile of F&Gs and somehow, for some reason, I felt compelled to give it a glance. Maybe it was a sense memory thing or something. Maybe I just liked the colors used or the premise of the story, but something in me wanted to read and review this book.
Flipping through it I was struck by one thing: Depth. Depth is hard when all you’ve got to work with is a bunch of practically two-dimensional paper pieces. Apparently someone failed to inform Mr. Steptoe of the fact, though, since he’s constantly shifting our point of view, drawing close to the action and then far. We’re up above them as they scurry away like ants, and now we’re right up in their faces, practically able to see their non-existent pores. The rain appears to be the thinnest of white/blue tissue paper, falling to the earth in long streams. And the kids in this book are African-American, their skins a variety of different shades and hues. Steptoe chooses to draw their faces on, rather than rely on more paper, which allows a subtlety of expression you probably wouldn’t be able to capture otherwise.
Oh. And there are words too. Sorry, Cynthia Cotten. It’s the curse placed on every picture book author to play second fiddle to their artistically inclined compatriot’s talents. The Caldecott medal happens to go to art, after all. Not words. Cotten’s gently rhyming text provides the bones of the book, but it won’t surprise you particularly. It’s just the regular “I’m a flower / in a shower” kind of stuff. Not particularly memorable, but nice enough.
I’m sure you’ve a plethora of good rainy day picture books to pull out when the skies turn gray. I’ve worked at libraries where the displays are wholly contingent on that day’s weather. The nice thing about Rain Play is that it shows the change of a day from sunny to rainy to sunny once again, and it doesn’t rely on rainbows to feel some kind of wonder for the change. Wonder is itself a difficult emotion to capture, but I think that Cotten and Steptoe do a stand-up job of working the book in that direction. For any kid that has celebrated in a warm summer rain, or has wanted to, this is a good little book.
On shelves now.