When I grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan I would get this little thrill every time my city appeared in a children’s book. Which is to say, every time it was mentioned in Horton Hatches the Egg. Honestly, for all that it had a cool name it really didn’t come up anywhere else. New York kids must be rather jaded in this regard. Anytime a city book is set somewhere other than Manhattan or Brooklyn, they probably scratch their little heads in confusion (I can attest to this personally as my two-year-old calls any and all cities she sees in books “New York City” and will not be corrected). As a NYC transplant I’d probably mind this more if it weren’t for the fact that so many of these books are so doggone splendid. Take Steve Light’s latest, Have You Seen My Dragon? A riot of miniscule details, numbers, colors, familiar city elements, and a magnificent, fantastic creature always hidden in plain sight, Light gives us a city dragon worth remembering long after the pages are turned.
You would think it would be difficult to mislay a dragon. You would be wrong. When our story begins a young boy is asking a doorman whether or not he’s seen his dragon. “No? I will look for him.” Never you mind that if the boy merely turned his head 90 degrees to the left he’d see his ginormous pet sniffing an understandably wary pup. From here it’s a race across the city. Everywhere the boy goes the numbers go up. The dragon perches atop a hot dog stand where they are selling “2 Hot dogs”. It peers down from a roof at the “3 Buses” below. It gets a quick drink from one of the “5 Water towers.” On the endpapers you can see the circuitous path the dragon takes through a slightly compacted lower Manhattan until, at last, the boy spots him in Chinatown, smiling widely from between the “20 Lanterns”.
There is a perception out there that it is near impossible to publish a black and white picture book in today’s market. This may be so, but Light comes pretty darn close to doing so. Though there is a different color for every number in the book, most of what you’re seeing is just good old-fashioned pen and inks. More to the point, the man has gone rather wild in his details. I haven’t seen intricate work at this level since I read Mark Alan Stamaty’s picture book cult classic Who Needs Donuts? Whether he’s detailing the myriad wires that curl around the sewer pipes below the street or paying homage to the detailing on St. Patrick’s Cathedral, there’s a method to the man’s madness. Now add in the fact that Light isn’t afraid to go vertical with his two-page spreads and that he occasionally gets incredibly creative with his perspective (the “8 Fire hydrants” two-page spread is an exercise in internal logic) and you have a rather beautiful affair. Little wonder that he chose to only dot the pages with color. It’s lovely to watch how the artist uses these colors to direct your eye across the page.
If the name “Steve Light” has been triggering some kind of latent amnesia in your cranium, it probably has to do with his board books with Chronicle Books. Let me tell you right now that if you have not read Trucks Go, Trains Go or Diggers Go aloud to a small child then your life, nice as it is, is little more than a pale hollow shell of what it might someday be. In those three books Light used bright, thick paints to convey an array of vehicles. He then gave each and every one of them original, amazing sounds, ideal of reading aloud either one-on-one or to a large group. Have You Seen My Dragon differs widely from that series in terms of look and feel. But what it does have in common is the age of the audience (toddler heaven is what we have going on here) and the read aloud potential. Good readalouds are rarities. For every 100 picture books published in a given season, maybe four of them are titles you’d like to test on a group of squirmy squirmers. And this, ladies and gentlemen, should be one of those four. It’s simple and interactive and I can already hear a room of small fry screaming at you as to where the dragon is “hiding”.
There may be the occasional New York child that complains that the buses in the book are purple when, in fact, our buses are no such of a thing. Meh. I say purple buses would be a heckuva lot more fun, so if Mr. Light wants to bestow that particular hue to them, let him. And that goes for the blue subway cars as well. Slightly more problematic are the “monkeys”. You will find that for the number 6 one is supposed to find “6 Monkeys”. The zoo picture is, if you follow the map, sort of supposed to be the Central Park Zoo, but it doesn’t really resemble it. That’s okay too. Artistic liberties I am a-okay with. Far more of a problem is the fact that the monkeys in question have no tails. Yup, what we’re dealing with here is a page of six apes. It’s a classic Curious George problem and not one that sinks the book or anything. Still, wouldn’t mind a tail or two on those primates. It would be just the thing.
All told, I see a lot of New York City picture books in a given year. This one goes beyond our city’s borders. It’s the kind of book that’s going to appeal to any kid that’s drawn to the hustle and bustle of a metropolitan area. The words “New York City” never even appear in the text, allowing a lot of young readers to simply think of the location as an everycity. Lithe and lovely, overflowing with good will and copious details, expect the sentence, “Have you seen Have You Seen My Dragon?” to appear on the lips of parents and children everywhere. Because if you haven’t seen it, now’s the time.
On shelves April 8th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Who Needs Donuts? by Mark Alan Stamaty
- Adele and Simon by Barbara McClintock
- The Bear’s Song by Benjamin Chaud