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Review of the Day: Perfect Square by Michael Hall

Perfect Square hc c 300x300 Review of the Day: Perfect Square by Michael HallPerfect Square
By Michael Hall
Greenwillow Books (an imprint of Harper Collins)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-06-191513-0
Ages 4-8
On shelves March 29, 2011

Graphic designers of the world, take heed: I am wary of your intentions. I mean it. You guys are, and I say this in the kindest way possible, strange. I don’t mind it when you take up large sections of MOMA with funky chairs. That is entirely your prerogative. No problemo. But when you start writing children’s books my hackles start to rise. I’ve little patience for books like The Graphic Alphabet which seem to have more fun entertaining mod tots’ parents than actual flesh and blood children. At worst you create coffee table picture books. At best . . . well, at best I guess you attain the ranks of folks like the great Leo Lionni, combining beautiful design with child-friendly art. Now Michael Hall is a fellow I’ve been keeping my eye on for a little while now. See, he’s definitely a graphic designer and he put out the book My Heart Is Like a Zoo not long ago. A perfectly nice book, sure, but while it was a cool idea (making animals out of hearts) it lacked . . . well . . . heart. His newest title Perfect Square, however, seems to rectify the situation. A brilliant combination of color, texture, originality, mild message, and kid-friendliness, Hall achieves a perfect medium all thanks to a shape with four equal side and four matching corners.

We meet a square. Four sides. Four corners. Red at the outset. And we can see that the square is happy with its lot. In fact, it’s probably utterly unprepared on Monday when it finds that someone somewhere has cut it up and poked out a couple of holes. Without even pausing to think it over, the square uses these newfound shapes to become a fountain. On Tuesday the square finds itself utterly changed again. This time it’s orange and rather than holey and cut up, it’s now a series of torn scraps. So the square uses those scraps to become a lovely garden of bright orange blooms. This continues in this way until one day something happens to the square that it never could have expected. Something, in fact, that makes it entirely question the life it led before.

There is no sense of who is putting the square through these trials, of course. No outside entity reveals him or herself through anything but the square’s physical changes. If you read this book to a child and asked them who was doing this to the square, I bet their answers would be numerous and eye-opening. In the end, the central conceit of this book works because while you get a vague sense of the square’s personality, the true star of the show is its ingenuity. This is a square that makes the best out of what one could construe as a series of bad situations and ends up the wiser for it. As for the ending itself, I loved how Hall tied everything together. The square, finding on Sunday that it has not been changed, discovers that it can no longer be satisfied with going back to the way things were, and takes it upon itself to change of its own accord. It becomes a window, and the things that window looks out upon make all the difference in the world.

I wouldn’t call the book tight-lipped about the medium in which Hall is working, but it’s not the most descriptive sentence in the world, that’s for sure. Says the book: “Acrylic monotype ink prints were used to prepare the full-color art”. On one level I’m just grateful Hall didn’t achieve the book’s effect through a computer medium (it’s hard to tell these days). And these “acrylic monotype ink prints”, as they call them, conjure up no one so much as the sainted father of children’s cut paper collage, Eric Carle. Carle painstakingly paints by hand all the papers that eventually make up the pictures in his books. I don’t know that Hall goes quite that far, but the different colored papers that become the square in its various incarnations are perfect for this book. They’re bright, bold, and at no point does the reader have any difficulty distinguishing one color from another. Of course, the images are often embellished by what looks like a graphite pencil, either in black or white, placing select details around the square’s fountain, or the park, or what have you. After close examination, all I could figure was that these parts of the pictures had to have been done on a computer later in the game. The white is too perfect and the black doesn’t look as if it has been drawn over the bumpy surfaces of the painted papers. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. Clearly Hall felt that for the good of the story, this was the method he preferred to utilize. It doesn’t distract from the images in the least, anyway. Once you get over the initial shock of a square sporting a goofy smile, you come to expect the other hand drawn details found further in the text.

I like message books where you can completely disregard the message and still enjoy the story. After a couple readings of Perfect Square I got that sinking feeling in my gut that informed me what it was that I was holding. Oh shoot . . . . oh man . . . . this is one of those picture books you’re supposed to hand to a graduating Senior from high school or college or something, isn’t it? Well, it certainly could be, but fortunately this book is a little deeper than your average reach-for-a-star-kid title out there. If there’s a lesson to be learned from Perfect Square it’s that some people are content to remain in their perfect little boring roles until outside forces show them what they’re worth. The square in this book isn’t about to turn into a mountain or a window without a little push, after all. That first time he finds himself cut into pieces and poked into holes, he doesn’t sit around moping. Hell, no! He turns himself into a fountain for everyone to enjoy. This is not a go-getter square at the start, but he comes around to the idea in the end.

Of course the book reminded me of all those other shape-with-personality books out there. Titles like Norton Juster’s The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics or Shel Silverstein’s The Missing Piece. For me, though, this book invokes no one more strongly than the aforementioned Leo Lionni. His Little Blue and Little Yellow would make a striking companion to Perfect Square (not least because you could have fun comparing 1959 color printing techniques to today’s). Like Lionni’s book there’s a quiet tone to this book. A steady storytelling. This is a book that taps into those older picture books of decades past. In short, it is the perfect combination of storytelling and good design because it never forgets to appeal to those most discerning of readers of all: children.

On shelves March 29th

Source: F&G sent for review from publisher.

Misc: The Greenwillow blog Under the Green Willow reported on the appearance of Mr. Hall and his wife in their offices not long ago.

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Elizabeth Bird About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently New York Public Library's Youth Materials Collections Specialist. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of NYPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. I have a friend who really loves My Heart is Like a Zoo, so I shall be very glad to be able to let her know about Perfect Square. The former never did it for me, but the latter… it sounds good!

  2. Joy Chu says:

    I wish to correct your misapprehension of graphic designers. Not all of them are sharp-edged, object-oriented anal-retentive solders.

    Every single published book features visuals that are crafted by a graphic designer. They are an intrinsic part of the bookmaking team.

    To imply that all graphic designers are shape-focused chair-shapers devoid of heart is as meaningful as saying all librarians are old maids.

    It may surprise you to know that there are even illustrators who have no sense of design at all. Yes, they can render beautifully, but can get lost on where to place it all. Sometimes they get so doggone enthusiastic (which is a good thing, actually), they forget to leave enough space for the words. Ooops! This is where the designer steps in to assist.

    You mentioned only two obvious examples of graphic designers who were also children’s book illustrators — Leo Lionni and Eric Carle. But there are so many more. They just aren’t as obvious. Just ask people like Scott Magoon, Lois Ehlert, David Diaz, or Diane Stanley, to name just a few.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Certainly there are tons out there with a real feel for how to create a worthy children’s book. No question. And my inclusion of Leo Lionni and Eric Carle was not an accident either (in fact I even say right that right at the start about Lionni). I was setting up a difference between those graphic designers that create picture books for adults and those that create picture books for children. Lionni and Carle clearly fall into the latter category. And designers are not my problem in general. It’s rather when they themselves write books that forget that the audience isn’t above the age of 10.

      The review starts out a bit tongue-in-cheek in any case. I doubt many graphic designers are going to ride me out of town on a rail when, after all, the entire beginning of the review is immediately disproven by the very book being reviewed. Worry not, Joy. No one’s placing a ban on designers making books for kids.

  3. Joy Chu says:

    You are fun to sport around with, Betsy. It will be interesting to observe what books catches the eyes of Baby Bird best. I know my own kid’s tastes surprised, delighted, and (sometimes) confounded me. I look forward to comparing notes on this adventure.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      You too, Joy! And I’m convinced that Baby Bird, in spite of all my efforts, may turn out to be the kid who would rather watch a football game or a classic film than read a book. I’ve seen it happen to librarians before. It’s like The Curse of the Literary. I hope to avoid it!