Pity the picture book author. Their lot is rife with strife. With a couple exceptions here and there it is mighty hard to make picture book authorship your one and only occupation. Many times the writer in question has to supplement their income with class visits to schools and libraries around the country. That in and of itself isn’t exactly a huge hardship, but here’s the pickle. I would suspect that nine times out of ten there’s at least one kid in the audience who raises their hand and asks the author, “How did you do the pictures?” This, in turn, leads to the writer very patiently explaining that while the art is great, they were the one who wrote the words. All true. All probably met with very blank stares from the audience. Now Mac Barnett is a young, relatively new fella to the picture book scene. Granted he’s written many a fine title, but I have this vague sense when I read his books that he’s probably done a class visit or two in his day. And I suspect that maybe, just maybe, he’s run into this very situation. And while we’re dreaming pie in the sky hypothetical situations with no basis in fact or fancy, I might infer that given this question enough time and thought the young Barnett might grow just a bit tetchy. Maybe he’d be inclined to teach kids a thing or two about picture book collaboration. Thing is, if you’re looking for an Aliki-style title that patiently explains the process by which an author and illustrator make books together, this ain’t it. This is more sorta what you’d get if you took Aliki and ran her through a blender filled with rainbow ice cream and tinker toys. That’s as close an approximation as I can come up with to describe Chloe and the Lion. Informative, yes. Fever dream heights of madness? That too.
The first thing you’ll see when you open this book is a question. A page asks you upfront “Whose book is this?” Whose indeed! From the get go author Mac Barnett (who introduces himself to you on the title page) is pretty darn sure that it’s his. This belief is made clear when the story he’s telling about a girl named Chloe and the lion she encounters is derailed by illustrator Adam Rex. Adam thinks lions are boring and wants to draw a dragon. Mac, meanwhile, is pretty sure he’s the boss of this operation and when Adam won’t fall in line he hires a new illustrator (the plaid and waders wearing Hank Blowfeather) to make the lion eat Adam. Unfortunately Hank isn’t as good an artist as Adam and when Mac falls into a funk it’s up to Chloe to buck up her creator, find a way to save Adam, and end the story on a happier note.
What’s interesting about this book is that the initial problem that sets everything off is Adam being wrong. Mac writes that a lion attacks Chloe and Adam draws a dragon because dragons are more interesting. Now Mac’s reaction to this is extreme, as is his subsequent firing of Adam, but right from the start he technically was in the right when he took Mr. Rex to task. Or was he? As I write this I can’t help but think that when authors and illustrators make picture books together, in a perfect universe there would be a lot of back and forth. These days most books happen when an author is paired with a random illustrator by their mutual editor and the amount of back and forth is nil. So maybe Mac’s celebrating the fact that true collaboration yields better books. For me, though, I was kind of rooting for the Mac character from the get got. Even as a kid I always sympathized with the straight men in comedy duos. I cheered on Bert when Ernie was being annoying. I hooted for Jack Lemmon when he was paired with pretty much anybody. And I’m on Mac’s side when I read this book. Which makes me suspect that while the bulk of kids take Adam’s side (and as those school visits attest, kids tend to prefer artists over authors anyway) there will be the odd kid here and there who spends the bulk of the book wondering when Mac will be vindicated. Spoiler alert, kiddo: He ain’t.
Of course the real moral of the book is that when it comes to creating picture books, no one is really the boss. It’s a collaborative effort. So, in a way, this is just one rather complicated lesson of teamwork and cooperation. And certainly Adam and Mac know something about that. Together they’ve created picture books like the storytime readaloud winner Guess Again!. They’re a star team. The only trouble comes in reining them in. Generally they have a tendency to Lane Smith their books sometimes. Which is to say, include gags for the adult reader that can potentially stop it cold when a kid is reading along. This book generally avoids that problem, with the exception of the crone with a pitchfork who says that all she likes to do is “go after monsters who’ve been emotionally wounded by their mad-genius creators” (possibly a sly reference to some of Adam’s books, possibly not).
And I remember the first time I encountered Adam Rex. He was just a wee pup of an artist still carving out a name for himself with books like Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich. I remember how impressed I was with his ability to use different artistic styles in a single title and I think that when I reviewed that story I said something along the lines of “this book has uncorked all of Mr. Rex’s hitherto bottled up expressiveness, and the result is realistic oil paintings, pages that could have come from guide books, images that glow with that old-timey silver screen feel, a comic strip, some computer graphic work, and a selection that looks as if it was engraved and created in the late 19th century.” I was duly impressed and became convinced that surely if someone has talent then, by logical extension, they get showered in Caldecott Medals, right? Fast forward six years (whoa . . . I am old) and Adam’s still brilliant but singularly unappreciated. At least, less appreciated than I would like. He hasn’t whipped out the variegated styles trick since his last Frankenstein book (Frankenstein Takes the Cake) so in a way Chloe and the Lion is a return to form. Here you’ll find him making nice use of his love of models, as well creating various artistic drawing styles so as to imitate the work of three different artists. Well played, sir.
Mac and Adam must love one another very very much. How else to explain why Mac let Adam turn him from one of the Hot Men of Children’s Literature (2nd Edition) to the bag-eyed, small-mouthed creature we see here. He looks more like Bob from Sesame Street (no offense, Bob) than anything else. Not that Adam is particularly kind to himself either (and he was a Hot Man of Children’s Literature – 1st Edition too). His ears appear to have been modeled on some of the more attractive strains of kale while his nose could probably be purchased in the fruit section of your local Whole Foods. Chloe, for her part, appears to have escaped from Dan Santat’s Oh No! (Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World) which was written by . . . . uh . . . Mac Barnett. Huh. Funny that. Except that rather than hail from San Francisco, this girl is outfitted for the Lone Star State, complete with a Texas-shaped belt buckle and tiny red cowboy boots. As a result she ends up looking a heckuva lot better than her creators (most of the time).
In terms of format, you can see the sheer levels of work that went into this. The bulk of the story takes place on a makeshift stage. So just step back and think about that. You’re reading a book that treats you like an audience member to a story that explains how books work but in a staged setting. It’s an idea that allows the book to fit right in with other let’s-destroy-the-fourth-wall-with-dynamite books like David Wiesner’s The Three Pigs and A Book by Mordecai Gerstein. That’s the first thing you notice. Then you look at how much time they spent making sure that a turn of a page would reveal a gag at just the right moment. It’s hard to time these kinds of things (particularly if you only have 48 pages to play with) but when it works it works. Adam has to cram like a devil, fitting into pages cut into quarters so as to accommodate the plot. Still and all, it all comes together. You gotta give the man that.
I read the book through a couple times to figure out whether or not a librarian could successfully read this book aloud to a class of savvy 2nd (slash 3rd slash 4th slash 5th slash 6th) graders. Conclusion: You betcha. It wouldn’t be easy, but you could definitely do it. My advice is to practice practice practice beforehand. Work on your lion voice (I hear it as Bert Lahr). Work on your Adam voice (I hear it as John Hodgman). Work on your Mac Barnett voice (Ed Wynne?). Begin the storytime by asking the kids, “Who is more important in a picture book: The writer or the illustrator?” When they all say illustrator (and they will) read them this book. Then ask them the same question. And when they still all say the illustrator, make sure that you point out that none of these ideas could have existed in the first place without the author, Mac Barnett. Point out how he’s made himself the butt of the jokes so that even if they don’t wholly believe that he’s of equal importance to Adam, at the very least you can hope that maybe if Mac does another class visit one of these days he’ll be able to leave in his wake a group of kids that abstain from asking future visiting authors whether they prefer to draw their books in pencil or pastels. Consider this information you can use in a surreal, not to say eclectic, little package.
On shelves April 3rd.
Source: Galley borrowed from fellow librarian for review.
- Bloody hard time finding any interior images of this book. Best I could do was to locate some of Adam’s preliminary sketches. So, for fun, here are some lions, here are some dragons, and here are some Chloes (which kind of trump my Oh No theory, consarn it).
- By the way, the hot name of picture books this year? Chloe. So far I’ve counted this book, Peter McCarty’s Chloe, and Chloe Instead by Micah Player. Offer me more if you know of them.
Naturally a book of this sort deserves a video in kind: