See this purple foot-shaped bruise on the back of my left leg? Wanna know how I got it? Of course you do, oh imaginary people I’m talking to in my head. Yeah, I got that by kicking myself for not having a copy of The Boys by Jeff Newman on hand the other day. I will endeavor to explain. You see I was working the children’;s reference desk in my library when a mother walked up to me with an interesting request. “Do you have any wordless picture books?" she asked. Do I! Merrily I skipped back and grabbed the lady a couple copies of Museum Trip, Home, Flotsam, and The Lion and the Mouse. After I’d handed them over and basked in that feeling of doing a good job it occurred to me . . . where was The Boys?. That magnificent best-wordless-book-I’ve-seen-in-years title hadn’t been purchased by my library yet when the woman asked. In the future, though, folks will have a hard time escaping my new Newman love. This book is remarkable without having to breathe so much as a word.
A new boy moves to a strange city and though he’s nervous he puts on his sneakers and takes his bat and ball to the local park to play with the other kids. Unfortunately, the boy can’t bring himself to ask the other children to let him play and contents himself with sitting with the old men on the nearby park bench. Wednesday he brings some bread to feed the birds and the men look concerned. Thursday he makes himself some old man pants and slicks his hair back, so as to better fit in. On Friday, the old men take matters into their own hands. They play on the playground equipment. They ride bikes. Finally, on Sunday, they decide to play some baseball. The boy, unmoved until now, is unable to resist and ends up knocking one out of the park. So when Monday comes along, he works up his courage, asks some kids to play, and gets to shine amongst his peers at last. Using words only to convey days of the week, this is a gentle story of how men who have experienced life encourage a boy to live his own.
Newman has done an excellent job at conveying a story without missing a beat. At the same time, he creates little problems for himself and then solves them. One of the old men wears dark glasses at all times. So when the guys start shooting one another glances and queries about the kid, that old man has to make physical signs to show his concern. Shrugs. Outstretched hands. Look too at how Newman lays out a scene. He deftly goes from close-ups to two-page spreads to action sequences where characters stand against a pure white background. It’s like a graphic novel without the panels. And at the end of the book the scenes pull back from the boy’s face as he finally gets to play with boys his age, to a distant look at a power shot, to a final even further spread where all our characters are mere stick figures, and blue and green shapes give just the merest impression of park and city.
That kind of pull back has all the feeling of an animated sequence. I kept glancing at Newman’s bio on the back flap of this book to see if he had some kind of job in animation (survey says: he lives in Milwaukee, so probably not so much). I only wondered because these images felt like classic storyboarding for Pixar movies like Up. There’s a retro throwback feel to the way Newman tosses his gouache and inks upon a page. And I’m not talking about the old-fashioned story of a kid who wants to play baseball (and not a girl in sight, no less). I’m talking about the way these pages are painted. The thick black lines that jump between delicate details and broad strokes. Newman can convey a power hit to a baseball by merely painting a light hexagon in yellow and then overlay it with a slightly askew black outlined hexagon, adding in the standard black movement lines around the ball and bat. There’s a style to this book. A style and a skill. Storytelling like this doesn’t happen by accident.
Multiple readings yield their own rewards too. You begin to notice things about the old men, like the fact that while three of them change clothes every day, one of them (the grumpy one) always wears the same red shirt, grey pant combo. Heck, you’d also notice that the grumpy one only really pays attention to the kid when he sees how the pigeons prefer the boy to him. And when the boy trades in his old men for young boys, you might notice that the boys correlate to the old guys in terms of looks (there are four of them, one always wears a striped shirt, etc.). They’re little details, maybe not immediately apparent, but when you notice them you realize how much love went into this book.
And he’s just so good at character too! You know these old men. They’re the fellows who had their day and now are content to hang out with their buddies in the park, reading books or feeding pigeons. And they are seriously worried about this boy when he keeps coming back. You know the boy too, for that matter. One of my favorite sequences is of the old guys pedaling by him on their bikes and wheels while the kid waves his stick/cane at them. The words “You, whippersnappers” have never been so perfectly conveyed without language before. Without wasting a page, Newman gets you to believe in the boy’s quickie transfiguration from kid to old fogey. The view of him combing his hair back against his head is a kind of reverse Saturday Night Fever.
I hope I did it justice. As a person who spent much of her childhood recess periods hanging out with the recess monitor (yep, I was that kid) I identified with this book immediately. I think that any kid who has ever felt nervous about approaching their peers will find something to love in this story, though. Newman is probably best known at this point for his previous picture book, Hippo! No, Rhino. That book was cute, but this one is shows a mastery of art and heart that would be difficult for any author/illustrator to capture in just 40 pages. Brilliant brilliant brilliant.
On shelves February 23rd.