Photography in children’s literature holds a real fascination for me. No work of pure photography has ever won a Caldecott Award or Honor and, when it comes right down to it, there are only two ways to even make a picture book for children with photos. Either you set up animals or people in tableaus and write stories/poems around them (Photoshop has aided in this process, though not significantly improved upon it) or you use models. If you go the model route you then have to be artistically talented in not one but two areas of expertise. You see where this is going. Most great artists who make models for picture books eschew using photography’s strengths, relying entirely on their art. And most photographers who make picture books care more about their shots than the artwork or the characters they’re shooting on an aesthetic level. The perfect medium only comes when you either have a fantastic model artist and a fantastic photographer working in tandem or, rarest of all, a fantastic model artist who doubles as a fantastic photographer. All this is just a roundabout way of saying that this is why a book like Hanks Finds an Egg works as well as it does. Calling herself “a builder, creator, photographer, and artist”, newcomer Rebecca Dudley tells a fine tale without a single solitary word.
The first shot in this book is precisely what you’ll see on the cover. A little bear (I think he’s a bear, though his tail is admittedly a bit long) finds an abandoned egg sitting in the middle of the path. A quick scan of the surrounding area reveals the corresponding nest, though it is very high above the ground. Hank attempts several methods at returning the egg but each time he tries he finds he’s just too short. Bowed but not beaten (and with the mama bird nowhere in sight) he takes the egg to his campsite and keeps it warm throughout the night. The next morning he returns to the scene of the crime to find a mama hummingbird there and anxious for her baby’s return. Fortunately a spot of inspiration hits Hank and the next thing you know he’s come up with the perfect plan for getting that little egg back into its nest once and for all.
Hank Finds an Egg began its life as a self-published title called “Hank Finds an Egg and Makes Several Friends”. Peter Pauper Press wisely made the decision to pare the title down to its essentials, and was in the unique position of not having to heavily edit the text as well. If Hank Finds an Egg works it is because it doesn’t have a single word to its name. Would that more self-published authors went this very wise route. By letting the pictures alone tell the story, Rebecca Dudley gives her reading audience some very much needed credit. The joy of wordless books has always been the fact that no matter what the child’s reading level, with purely graphic storytelling they are able to finally “read” a book on their own without feeling dumb. I’ve heard of teachers using wordless picture books with new immigrants who do not yet speak the language, and with kids who love books but struggle with reading disabilities. Hank has an allure not simply because Dudley has a keen eye for panels and storytelling, but because the images she includes also happen to be beautiful from start to finish.
One cannot speak of photographed models and, more to the point, bears, without invoking the most infamous picture book of them all: The Lonely Doll. Created by photographer Dare Wright, the Lonely Doll books are sometimes remembered today for their dated reliance on spanking as a method of control (the poor doll’s frilly underpants not helping matters any). While it’s easy to scoff at the questionable morals of the books, let us not forget that there was one area in which they excelled. Photographer Dare Wright was able to create a truly memorable series through the strength not just of the bear and doll models but also her own photography. The Lonely Doll is at times breathtakingly beautiful. There is a shot, for example, of the doll and bear standing at the end of the Brooklyn Bridge, no human in sight, that would be worthy of framing and placing on your wall, if you were so inclined to do so.
Wright was either hampered or helped by her reliance on black and white photography. Dudley isn’t restricted in this way, but she’s clever enough not to go bold and brassy with her color palette. Since this is a woodland tale the primary tones are browns and greens. Against this dull backdrop the white of the egg stands out brilliantly. Later the ruby throats of the hummingbirds are, with the exception of the pink flowers that brighten up Hank’s campsite, the only spots of reddish hue to be found in the book’s pages. As you go through the book, take time to notice when Dudley keep the focus on an object near the camera or far away. Like a graphic novelist, she takes great care to switch camera angles from one moment to the next. The book doesn’t have the static a + b + c narrative that would bog down a lesser artist. There’s tension in how she sets up her shots, and a flow to the gentle, never saccharine, storytelling.
As for the models themselves, Dudley has a tendency to create vast dioramas made out of what I can only assume to be felt. Hank, for his part, is so clearly constructed that you can make out the very stitches holding him together. Then there are the visual tricks that give the tale its pep. A campfire a little later skillfully recreates the feeling of fire partly by somehow bouncing light from the campsite into Hank’s face. And then there’s the clever way in which Dudley gives the impression of movement with the hummingbird’s moving wings. Blurred fibers (even examining the pictures again and again I’m not sure how she did this) make it look as though parts of the hummingbird are moving at a speed that cannot be captured by the eye. If it’s a gimmick it’s a clever one, and (more to the point) one that serves the story well.
One should probably note that it would be wise to explain to kids that what Hank does in this book is not par for the course. If a child should find that an egg has fallen from a nest, the best thing would NOT be to try to return it on their own. On the visual side of things, there is a somewhat odd moment when the newly hatched hummingbirds sit in their nest and appear to glare down at Hank. Clearly that is not the story’s intent, and yet I’m sure there will be more than a few kids who ask why the baby hummingbirds are so angry and their savior. And I’m sure someone somewhere will find it dubious that hummingbird eggs could be as large as the ones featured here. That point doesn’t really bother me all that much.
Weigh the strengths against the weaknesses and you still come to find that Hank Finds an Egg is an honestly touching story told with a unique format that resembles few picture books being churned out today. Because here’s the crazy fact that no one ever considers: kids love photographs. They do. And they love picture books made up of photographs. The fact that we see so few of these in a given year may have as much to do with the range of artistic skills that need to be employed as it does big publishers’ reluctance to take a chance on a medium that doesn’t tend to win awards. Sometimes you have to leave the creativity to the little guys. And few little guys are quite as appealing to old Hank here. It’s something special, no question.
On shelves May 1st.
Like This? Then Try:
- The Lonely Doll by Dare Wright
- Here Comes the Garbage Barge by Jonah Winter, ill. Red Nose Studio
- The Princess and the Pea by Lauren Child
- Stardines Swim Across the Sky by Jack Prelutsky, ill. Carin Berger
Other Blog Reviews:
- Publishers Weekly discusses the book as well as the publisher and their new forays into the realm of children’s books.
- For further steps into Hank’s world, do check out Ms. Dudley’s blog Storywoods.
And on a related note, here is a short film trailer for the aforementioned Storywoods: