Ah. The old things-falling-out-of-the-sky storyline. It’s just such a great trope. I ascribe much of the success of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs not just to the notion of gigantic food covering homes but also to the simple idea that sometimes that vast unknowable space that lurks above our heads can yield surprising glories and horrors. We humans walk around all day with the infinite above our noggins and we’re not supposed to be even a little bit scared of what lurks up there? That’s why there’s such a fascination with aliens, you know! I mean we’ve pictured everything from space creatures to God living and watching us from points unknowable, up up and away. Joe Kulka gets this. He has realized that in some ways there is nothing more mysterious and interesting than gifts from the great beyond. In The Rope Kulka presents the old-fashioned idea of “be careful what you wish for” and gives it a new and lively spin.
An average farm family is flummoxed when one day Junior spots a rope hanging out of the sky near their cornfield. After closer inspection they see that there is a little sign on it that reads, “PULL FOR MORE”. But more what? Over supper the family ponders the problem until suddenly they realize that they wouldn’t mind having more soup. More soup? Why not? The family traipses out to the rope but while they do get a flood of soup it’s a little messier than they’d hoped. A wish the next day for new shoes yields a ton of shoes, none of which match. And Junior’s seemingly foolproof plan for money? Falling pennies, as it happens, can be pretty painful. At last Pa decides that the only thing to do is burn the rope and everything goes back to normal. That is, before Junior spots the chain hanging out of the sky in the backyard. And attached to the chain is a little sign. . .
The story was a nice play on other fables we’ve heard before. The concept of “more” always yields unpredictable results in stories for children. For example, Cynthia DeFelice’s One Potato, Two Potato is a similar tale of farm folk attempting to get more food, this time from a magic pot. The characters in DeFelice’s story succeed in the end because they are poor and hungry at the beginning, whereas the family in The Rope is content when their tale starts. Therefore their story is meant to teach them to be content with the things they already have and not ask for more. Happy people, it is clear, shouldn’t make use of magic.
The story’s good. It’s the art that makes it ultimately worthy, though. Kulka is a detail fan. I love little things, like the fact that you can make out the individual little strings of hemp coming up off of the rope. The artist does some lovely things with light too. When Pa decides to burn the rope we’ve an impressive view of it going up in flames in the late twilight, the light flickering off the family’s faces (shoes scattering around nearby). And earlier when they first see the rope the view is from above and you can see the dying sunlight casting long shadows before each family member (including a small mouse, but more on that later). I do sort of wish that we’d gotten a ground-eye view of the rope disappearing into the clouds high above in the sky. Most shots of the family are straight on or from above. It might have been nice to see something from their perspective as well.
When I was a child some of my favorite books were by Richard Scarry. And in one of those Scarry books, its title long lost to time, your goal on each double spread was to find a tiny little gold bug. I spent hours and hours poring over that book trying desperately to find that critter. More recently, David Carter has done similar seek-and-find games with his pop-up extravaganzas One Red Dot and Blue 2. So I was very pleased to see that though he doesn’t announce it, Kulka has done something similar with his book. On almost every two page spread, and this includes the two title pages, a small brown mouse makes an appearance. The little critter sneaks into the tiniest of crevices, so you really do need a keen eye to spot him. I am convinced, however, that there are three two-page spreads where the mousy does not show up. You are free to tell me that I am wrong, but if it’s there then it is WELL hidden. It’s a lot of fun, though. I have nothing but respect for the author/artist that gives his picture book extra added oomph.
Other details catch your eye as well. After the shoe wish goes astray, you get the clear impression that there are a ton of single shoes littering this poor family’s land (I was particularly taken with the zebra print thick-soled seventies shoe with the goldfish in its heel we see plummeting). The feeling is reinforced when, later in the book, you see the shoes being used in an array of un-shoelike fashions, including as bird feeders and vases. And just from a visual standpoint I love the end gag. Yeah, okay, so now there’s a chain hanging from the sky behind the house. But the unspoken assumption here is actually funnier than the fact that there’s something new hanging from the sky. You get the distinct impression that someone or something saw the first rope burn and thought, “Hm. Let’s see you get rid of THIS one then!” I kind of wish the back bookflap had shown the dad in a welder’s mask, working at removing the new chain link by link.
Combining classic fable elements with just the right combination of the bizarre takes some doing. The Rope manages to mix the two together well by adding in some visual spins that are certainly out of the ordinary. A creative new take, this is a great look at older story elements. Well worth a gander in any case.
On shelves in September.
Notes on the Cover: I can understand why they went with this image since it shows almost everything you need to know, but I’m a little confused by the perspective here. The cloud cover seems abnormally close to the dad in this shot. What’s more, is that a sun-tinged cloud the rope is plummeting through before it reaches the ground? I prefer to think of it as the soup on its way down (which would be a pretty cool image right there and then). In a way, the picture on the back cover conveys just as much information, though the angle isn’t as cool. Still, I kind of think that should have been the one they went with.
I’ll tell you how this book came to my attention because it certainly wasn’t in the usual roundabout way. Now I don’t want to give the impression that I’m easy. Do you know how many people send me children’s books every day? A lot. I don’t have time to review everything. So sometimes I admittedly will give a little more consideration to something if it (A) comes from someone associated with the book (B) is clear that they put work into the effort and (C) the book itself is awesome. (C) is usually the do or die factor in these cases, since I will never give a negative review to a title sent to me personally.
Now in the case of Joe Kulka, (C) was firmly in place since The Rope is entirely original and enjoyable. (A) was certainly present since I sincerely doubt that a bunch of us are getting mail from Pelican Press out of Gretna, Louisiana. (B) was the sticking point… and I think that it is fair to say that Mr. Kulka went above and beyond the call of duty. In the interests of full-disclosure let me show you what I got in the mail one day.
I returned home from my vacation in Stratford, Canada to find this box sitting on my desk.
It was surprisingly light. I assumed that perhaps it contained a poster or something. So when I opened it and saw the corn stalks poking out . . .
. . . I thought to myself, “Hunhuna?” Now mind you, I had not actually gotten the book of The Rope quite yet. So when I saw this inside . . .
. . . I was baffled as all get out. It was cool, no question, but bizarre. I mean, where does a guy find both corn stalks and an actual honest-to-god rope? There was a note enclosed as well:
The book came in the mail the next day and all was made clear, but when I got the package home my husband asked, “why are people sending you nooses?” A fair question. I explained that it wasn’t a noose but just a length of rope, but he remains unconvinced. Even now when I leave it around the house he’ll call, “Honey? Your noose is in the hallway!”
- Turns out Mr. Kulka also participated in a blog tour about a year ago for his book Wolf’s Coming.
- He has also done a flake for Robert’s Snow.
- He is one of the contributors to the blog Outside of a Dog.
- He also has a lovely website here.