As far as I know there are no hard and fast rules that govern an illustrator’s debut picture book. No guidelines on what to do or what to avoid are written down for easy reference. If an illustrator were to ask me, however, I would probably advise against going wordless your first time out. The general buying public is comfortable with certain wordless books, all right. Anno’s Journey and The Red Book and The Snowman, for example. But these are award winners or literary classics. By and large the general purchasing public isn’t entirely certain what to do with the wordless. How on earth does one “read” when there is nothing to be “read” in the traditional sense of the word? But you know who didn’t ask for my advice on the matter? Tao Nyeu. Ms. Nyeu just went out there and created the biggest, brightest, most imaginative wordless picture book I’ve seen in all of 2008. She did it without taking a drop of advice from me, and I’m bloody well glad she did. So artists everywhere, I implore you! Never listen to a single syllable that falls out of that gaping hole I dare to call a mouth. Whether the marketplace is ready for it or not, Wonder Bear is a remarkable debut appearance by a special creator adept at tuning into that portion of the brain directly connected to childhood.
A boy and a girl plant a garden. Not a particularly extraordinary event in and of itself, but as they lie dreaming that night a beanstalk, as thick and lush as any Jack ever climbed, shoots out of the ground to flower the next morning. Emerging from one such blossom is a white bear with a blue top hat. From this hat the bear pulls out a troop of high-spirited monkeys, bubbles that take the shape of wild animals, flying creatures that normally are relegated to the deep blue sea, and more. After a day of adventures the boy and the girl fall deeply asleep and tucked into bed by the bear and the monkeys before they themselves take off for parts unknown.
I found the color palette itself mildly fascinating. I’ve decided that deep green just doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Nyeu gives the hue its due, alongside other colors I might not instinctively reach for myself. Deep blues I see a lot of, but oranges and yellow/oranges? That stands not within the prospect of belief! Much of the action, including the cover, is set against a pure white sky, the bear only distinguishing himself through his own outline. This could come off as dull and uninformative as a Eyewitness book, but fortunately Nyeu shakes things up enough by shifting backgrounds, angles, distant shots, and close-ups so that the read never comes off as stagnant. Really, these changes in perspective give the reader a sense of flying with the characters. Speaking of which, the characters in the book are fun, though it is clear that the monkeys steal the show. Nyeu is not averse to slipping in a little monkey-related detail here or there (check the back endpapers), and kids will have fun following the orange critters’ adventures throughout the story. Sharp eyed readers will also spot a blue top hat on the seeds the boy plants (and the watermelons on the girl’s side are full grown by the tale’s end).
A quick word on the size of the book. Librarians will often groan when a publisher decides to put out a picture book of unusual dimensions. Yes yes, we understand the artistic inclinations at work here. Fellow artist Mo Willems can explain at length why Leonardo, the Terrible Monster is tall and thin while Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed is long and wide. That said a library’s shelves are not eternally malleable things. We like our books to fit, you see. The oddly shaped or incredibly tall are too often doomed to the “OVERSIZED” section of the children’s room where no one ever sees them and where they are bound to lay forgotten, maligned, and alone. Wonder Bear is eye catching and tall with a creamy whiteness and selectively shiny cover that is dazzling to the eye. This will serve it well in bookstores, where catching the eye is the whole point of the game and where shelves are flexible objects. In children’s rooms in libraries, however, do not be surprised if it is difficult to find this book right off the bat. This is definitely an example of when art comes in conflict with use.
Artistic considerations aside (no small task) the easiest way to describe this book to parents would be to call it The Cat in the Hat meets The Snowman. Consider it. You have your top hatted animal character that pulls wild things from its headwear and takes two children (a boy and a girl) through remarkable adventures. That’s a credit to Seuss. Then on the other side of the equation you have a large white, friendly polar entity coming to life and flying about through a dark night sky. Tip of the hat to Mr. Briggs. However, Nyeu eschews the near calamity and anarchy of The Cat while also not getting near Briggs’ surprisingly sad ending. The result is a picture book as light and fluffy as a soap bubble without an emotional core. It’s a comfort book, not a story with a greater purpose. Not all tales for children need this unsettling undercurrent, but maybe a little jolt or hint of conflict would not have been out of place here. Maybe.
My knowledge of the children’s literary marketplace outside of America wouldn’t fill half a flea’s eardrum, y’know. Still, the international possibilities of this book cause one’s jaw to drop slowly to the floor. I mean, the title itself already has the feel of a wordless import. It reads more like The Adventures of Polo than Jeannie Baker’s Window. Some may not care for the title’s systematic stream of consciousness while others wish it packed more of an emotional or narrative punch. I like it quite a bit, though I acknowledge that it does feel like a first book. But Ms. Nyeu is clearly a name to watch as her books grow and change over the years. Her sense of wide-eyed wonder is something no one will ever be able to copy or steal. A beautiful object and a very fun book. A visual winner, through and through.
Other Blog Reviews:
- Every Day Is Like Wednesday
- The Children’s Book Review
- Kids Lit
- Muddle Puddle Musings
- Pink Me
- Working Dad