Parables. They’re almost impossible to do in children’s books. The problem with a parable is that if it wants to teach something it often has to say what it means. Another way of saying that is that parables for children are explicit. A good parable for kids can be subtle, but most don’t bother. They take their messages and whap children over the head with them repeatedly. Then kids resent the message, and nobody ends up very happy. These thoughts reside in a dark corner of my brain at all times, and when I saw the picture book Ravenna and got the gist of its story I was certain that if I read it I’d find yet another preachy little number. Yet Ravenna is a different kind of book. First off, it bases its story on my favorite King Arthur legend, Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady (I’m partial to the Selina Hastings version myself). Second, the illustrations by artist Daniel Nevins set this little black and white title apart from the picture book pack. As for the writing itself, it’s not your usual fare. That’s not a bad thing. In an era of cookie-cutter wordplay it’s refreshing to read something that works as a whole and complete story while also upsetting your expectations. Doubtless there will be folks unnerved by what they find here, but for most this is just a strange, sweet story about a boy and a bear.
Galen’s your average mountain farm kid. He spends a lot of time outside, and then one day he hears that a new neighbor moved in with a bear. Intrigued, Galen pays the man a visit. While there he sees Ravenna, the bear, who is far more lovely than anything he could have imagined. It’s clear that Galen wants Ravenna for his own, but before she transfers her ownership, she tells him that he must first find out what every creature wants. After much discussion and thinking, Galen hits upon it. “All creatures want to be free!” Ravenna agrees that this is the answer and the two pass happy months together. However, it’s not long before Galen realizes that the answer to Ravenna’s question wasn’t just theoretical. And though he loves her, the boy must decide whether or not he’s prepared to do the right thing.
For some folks, there’s just no getting around the fact that this is a story about a boy in love with a bear. I’d agree, and it’s a little unusual sure, but let’s face it. If any kid was living in the wild and came across a pretty dancing bear that could also talk, don’t you think they’d want one too? There’s nothing untoward in Galen’s desire to own Ravenna. He just thinks she’s awesome and wants to be with her all the time. As for the moral of “if you love something, let it go” (those exact words aren’t used, but that’s the basic premise) it may be more pertinent to a kid than the original Sir Gawain story. In that tale, Gawain gives his wife the choice of being beautiful during the day or at night. In Ravenna a boy who owns a bear, a cool talking bear, sets her free. Children understand the concept of ownership (the word “MINE!” is part of their vocabulary from early on) so the notion of letting an animal under your control go without a parent or authority figure telling you to do so is pretty heady stuff.
The size of the book is fascinating. For one thing, it comes in at the rare 8.6 inches by 5.6 inches. The result is that feels more like a hardbound pamphlet in your hand than a picture book. That said, Curnow knows how to dole out her text. Though there are plenty of words, the storyline never overwhelms the relatively small print size. As for the writing, I kept waiting for it to become didactic or out-of-context religious or just generally unpleasant. I waited in vain. Ms. Curnow complements her storytelling with small descriptions that set the reader in another world. Galen’s days initially consist of wading “in the streams to collect smooth stones and crayfish.” Ravenna herself later teaches him, “which mushrooms you could eat, where to find sourwood honey, the names of lizards,” and other things as well. Many first time picture book authors make the mistake of rushing through a story without making it a real, whole place. Curnow doesn’t fall into that same trap.
Now truth be told, the art of Mr. Nevins was the initial enticement I needed to pick up the book and flip through it. His pen and inks appear here always in black and white (or is it deep brown and white?) on good high quality paper. At first I was under the impression that the pictures might have been woodblock prints. There’s a curviness to the images that belies that theory, but I kept coming back to Ravenna’s face. Three times we see her look down and to her left in the course of the book and three times her face is near identical. It’s a stylistic choice, and one that doesn’t hurt the book or the telling, but I wanted to see whether or not Nevins was just using the same woodblock to capture the image or if he was meticulously painting her out by hand each time. After much examination, I determined that yes, Mr. Nevins must have patiently drawn Ravenna looking like this time and time again. It’s not noticeable on a first read, but it speaks to the artist’s time and meticulous attention.
As morals go, the idea that all living things want to be free is a pretty ideal one for a picture book format. Kids, after all, are far from free. They’re kept under the scrutiny of their parents and other guardians. They must attend school, and always be where adult guidance is none too far off. They often long for the kind of freedom that Galen enjoys in this book, and the kind that Ravenna seeks. For them, this story makes sense. And it does it in a straightforward, almost practical manner. If for any reason at all you’re simply looking for a pretty little gift book for you and yours, Ravenna provides. A quiet, thoughtful tale.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from author for review.
Professional Reviews: Asheville Arts and Entertainment