The people of New York City are spoiled beyond belief. Many’s the time I’ve traipsed down the street and glanced at one of the passing skyscrapers or cathedrals thinking “in any other town that building would be considered the pride and joy of the city”. Heck, I grew up in Kalamazoo where the Comerica building downtown was, when I was a kid, considered by me to be the tallest building in the world. But even as kids in every city, in every state, in every country pass and glance at the local architecture, they rarely stop to consider their construction. Occasionally you’ll run across a kid David Macaulay fan who knows their stuff, but even those books take a lot of time thinking about the big picture. What about the little picture? The folks who do the down and dirty work? If Mara Rockliff’s Me and Momma and Big John does nothing else (and it does a lot) it leads kids to understand that for every great awe-inspiring behemoth in their lives, there were countless everyday joes working hard, making a living, turning pencil sketches on blue paper into reality.
Her first day home from her new job and already John’s momma looks exhausted. A former factory line worker she’s now a trained stonecutter and her new job involves working on Manhattan’s magnificent and perpetually unfinished Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, also known as “Big John”. It’s hard work and when John hears that she’s spent all her time on just a single stone he is amazed. At last, one day he and his little siblings accompany their momma to Big John and even in the midst of being awed at the sheer size of the place, John can’t help but be incensed that his mother’s stone won’t even bear her name. How will anyone ever know it was hers then? But watching that stone go up into its space he comes to realize that this is a place where art isn’t just to be looked at but to “be”. And even if the world never knows her stone is there, he will. And she will too.
If any other book were to contain an African-American mom working as a stonecutter, you know exactly how that would play out. The book would begin with a rote “My mom has the best job in the world” then launch into a description of her day, ultimately ending at some point with the requisite “girls can do anything” (and if it’s feeling particularly bold it might even use the term “women”). The phrase “show, don’t tell” is lost in a large swath of literature for kids these days. Now compare that kind of blunt moralizing with what Rockliff has done here. Our first shot of John’s mom shows her trudging (her word) up the stairs to her apartment, covered in stone dust, exhausted after a long day. We hear about her new job, what she does, and what it’s like, but the thrust of the story itself is on John’s perception and his worry about, in a sense, his mother’s legacy. Rockliff keeps her focus trained squarely on a kid’s p.o.v. and at the same time teaches a lesson with the class of a truly skilled picture book author.
And when I think of the great picture book illustrators of the city streets my first thoughts fly to Ezra Jack Keats. Keats worked on the street level, showing off the graffiti and the trash and the peeling posters, rendering them beautiful in their grittiness. In the opposite direction you have someone like Miroslav Sasek, turning what is usually chaotic and wild into a designer’s world of perfectly straight lines and shapes. William Low’s approach is like neither of these and if I were to call it anything I might say that it sits at the true juncture between Keats and Sasek. Like Keats, Low’s celebration of the city is predicated on reality. You’re going to see the crud that collects on the inside of a bus’s wheel well but you’re also going to go beyond that and see how the rooftops blend together in an early morning haze, all purples and pinks and shades of peach. Like Sasek, Low finds a way to organize the seemingly disparate into a kind of whole. Unlike Sasek, he works in all the city’s denizens, all races, all creeds.
The kicker is that nothing Low makes is real. Or rather, nothing he makes is painted, cut, stamped, drawn on a pad of paper or even an easel. He remains to this day perhaps the finest digital artist working in the field of picture books. Some artists like Bob Staake embrace the very smooth pure-lined look of digital art willingly. That Low creates art that looks as though it were made by hand is almost a different philosophy entirely. If digital art looks as though it were painted to the point where you can see the “brushstrokes”, does that make it a lesser art form because it seeks to replicate what has already been mastered? Or is there a method to the madness? When Low uses specific programs designed to imitate pastels or oils, is he simply using a different kind of technique, the same way another person might employ colored pencils over watercolors? These are questions better suited to philosophically minded art students than myself. All I know is they’re durn purdy.
However you prefer to view digital art, it’s clear that no matter how adept you are at opening a program and starting a new image, unless you have the artistic chops to do it right there’s going to be little difference between the bad art done in an easel and the bad art done with a virtual paintbrush. That’s Low’s true advantage. The man has an eye for the construction of a scene. Whether you’re admiring the long gone curves in Old Penn Station or the burst of color that accompanies the cherry blossoms in Machines Go to Work, Low understands how a picture book works. Here he puts his prodigious talent to work playing a lot of the time with light. Early morning natural light, the light that bounces off a stone floor from a stained glass window onto a person’s face, or the white hot gleam on a roof that precedes the approach of a rising sun. It’s a beautiful piece of work made all the better by the hardworking multi-ethnic cast populating its pages.
As weird as this may sound, the picture book I would associate most closely with Me and Momma and Big John is the clever and entirely original little Colombian picture book Jimmy the Greatest by Jairo Buitrago In both cases you have the story of a single individual working with a group (be it a village or a building project) in pursuit of a goal that is bigger than themselves. John’s driving fear in this book is that his mother’s contribution will go forgotten and to a very real extent that fear is well founded. Who looks at the stones of a church, any church, and knows what person helped to form each element? Yet with this book Ms. Rockliff gives kids the key to understanding that every monument, no matter how large, was formed by real people with families. And the world feels that much more human and personable.
On shelves August 28th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Sky Boys: How They Built the Empire State Building by Deborah Hopkinson
- Jimmy the Greatest by Jairo Buitrago
- Cathedral: The Story of Its Construction by David Macaulay