I’ve written a lot about the state of translated children’s books in America lately. It is what it is. Generally speaking, Americans can be a bit cagey when it comes to literature for kids from other countries. Either we’re weirded out by the art, or the storyline doesn’t meet our expectations. It’s so peculiar. So odd. So . . . outlandish! So the fact that Archipelago Books deemed 2017 the year to debut their new imprint Elsewhere Editions (“devoted to translating imaginative works of children’s literature from all corners of the world”) . . . well, it was unexpected, let’s say that. Still, I’m a sucker for a book that upends my expectations (to say nothing of the expectations of my patrons). And brother, if you want a book that doesn’t do anything you expect it to, My Valley by Claude Ponti has got your number. Imagine the sweeping vistas of Maxfield Parrish coupled with a world so snug and cozy a hobbit would be jealous and you’ve got yourself a book that outright refuses to cater to our preconceived notions of what a picture book should be. Lush and lovely, cuddly and warm, this is one uncanny valley you may never wish to leave.
Imagine a marmot with agency. That’s essentially what you get when you look at a Twims. Small lightly furred creatures with boatloads of curiosity and family members, our narrator is Poochie-Blue. He lives in a deep valley, covered in vegetation and some very interesting locations. With multiple family members and even more places to explore, we are led on a tour of eclectic graveyards, trees that hear your secrets, odd islands, opinionated topiary, and far far more. Rendered with magnificent images on every page, Ponti gifts readers with a world unlike any they’ve ever seen before (or are likely to see again).
Originally Ma Vallee was published in 1998. Later, in 2006, its creator Claude Ponti would win the Prix Sorcieres Special for lifetime achievement. So, naturally, I was curious. Is this the first Ponti book to hit American shores or was there something before? I had not counted on the intrepidness of Françoise Mouly. The celebrated Art Director of The New Yorker (and brain behind TOON Books) tapped Ponti early on to create some easy titles for kids. That’s why we’ve seen him do books like Chick and Chickie Play All Day and this year’s Adele in Sand Land. Small publisher David R. Godine tried bringing us Ponti’s DeZert Isle back in 2003 but that’s as far as a translated Ponti text has gotten in the U.S. What’s so interesting about Elsewhere Editions choosing to publish this book at this time is that it didn’t try to make it easy. Coming in at a massive 11” X 15”, My Valley promises to be a bane to picture book shelves everywhere. It simply will not fit everywhere. And, after looking closely at the images in this book, you wouldn’t want it to.
I cannot hope but to wonder what medium Claude Ponti was working in when he created this book. My first instinct is to say watercolors, and maybe that’s right, but rarely have I seen watercolors this finely detailed. Ponti’s work on this book resembles, in many ways, the world of some of the great graphic novelists of our time. The characters themselves, the Twims, are simply drawn. With their round little bellies and generally circular features they stand in contrast to the sweeping vistas Ponti has placed around them. The landscapes in this book are nothing short of breathtaking. There are fog-soaked days where the cliffs appear to be blue and a point where the sea and the horizon meet in pure splendor. And it isn’t just the valley itself. I particularly enjoyed watching how Ponti would light one scene or another. Look at the full-page image of a distant storm approaching the valley. The artist here has struck just the right balance between the oppressive darkness lurking in the bodies of the clouds and the otherworldly lighter outlines at the clouds’ edges. Ponti will even allow himself the indulgence of doing images in an Impressionistic style by saying the art is by a Twims painter. Sneaky.
Judging from some of the online reviews of this book I’ve seen, Americans seem utterly flummoxed by its lack of plot. Many cannot conceive why you would read a book if not to find a tidy beginning, middle, and end. The thought that a kid might want to plunge headlong into a world just to be there doesn’t compute with our preconceived expectations. And certainly, there will be certain types of kids out there just as baffled as the adults. Where’s the bad guy? Well, there’s a Sleeping Monster, but no one knows if it’s good or bad (it hasn’t woken up yet) and there’s a sad giant, but he’s hardly a threat. No, this is an immersive book more than anything else. You go to it when you want to be fully enveloped in a world that is not your own.
That world, for what it’s worth, is meticulously rendered with a great deal of forethought. Like Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge series, Ponti isn’t afraid to show vast cutaways of dwellings, meticulously labeling everything that can be found inside. In this he also reminds me of Peter Cross’s work on books like Trouble for Trumpets. Both Barklem and Cross are British artists, by the way, indicating that Americans are somehow less obsessive when it comes to our own drawn worlds. Sometimes I feel like we, as readers, are afraid to linger. Kids, on the other hand, are professional lingerers. Beset by boredom from every side, they can place a picture book on the floor and simply lose themselves in the art and style. They don’t get a chance all that often, but when a book like My Valley comes along, surely it’s too good an opportunity to pass up.
I would be amiss in not mentioning the work of translator Alyson Waters. An adjunct Associate Professor at Columbia University’s School of the Arts Writing Program, Ms. Waters has worked primarily on translated adult works in French over the years. A cursory glance through her resume does not yield a lot of books for kids. I find this interesting since the choices she made in this book could not have been easy ones. Take our introduction at the beginning to our hero and his family. First off, there are the names. Some probably were the same in both French and English (names like Smarghoula or Sipoye) but others definitely had to be given their own American touch. So you’ll get names like “Sowhatty” and “Nothin’-Doin’”. And I know it sounds crazy but when I read these and also read the fact that our hero (Poochie-Blue) referred to his parents as plain old Mom and Dad, I knew Ms. Waters was probably American-born. I wonder how difficult this particular translation was, too. It is devoid of rhymes and poems, which must have proved a blessing, but by the same token there are times when the book seems particularly challenging. One such example is a map of the valley where every creek, forest, grove, marsh, quarry, etc. is meticulously rendered and translated for our prying eyes. Tiny names abound and they’re all in English now. Well done there.
Usually when I critique a book written for children I place the section that talks about the book’s writing at the beginning of the review. Today I’m putting it near the end. Partly this is because the true star of the show, and I think Mr. Ponti would agree, is the art. But there was a great deal I liked about the book’s storytelling as well. Told entirely in the first person, Poochie-Blue is giving us the insider’s tour. But there are tiny little details to each vignette of the story that makes it just that much more real. Take, for example, the tale of the sad giant who wants so badly to see into the Twims’ house tree. Poochie-Blue and his sister decided to simply take everything in the house and show it to him. “For three days and three nights and one morning we showed him.” I just love that tiny little “and one morning”. It gives the story a bit of a kick. You even get some character development along the way. For example, our hero gives us an explanation about the Theater of Hissy Fits, where you can work out your issues with other Twims without causing them any pain. Mad at his brother Tornik-Orge for breaking his puppet, Poochie-Blue constructs an elaborate monster mask/marionette, as well as a likeness of Tornik-Orge. Let us just say that things do not go especially well for the likeness.
Above all else, My Valley is a visual experience. The sheer size of the pages encourage children to feel as though they could just tip forward and fall into the world before them. I haven’t had this kind of a feeling reading a book for younger readers since I saw the full-size edition copy of a collection of Little Nemo comics. I don’t see a lot of books like this one. Which is to say, stories for a range of ages that serve the sole purpose of transporting you somewhere new. If it’s rising action, plots, and character arcs you’re into, seek ye elsewhere. If, however, you want something a little different but also awe-inspiring, you couldn’t do better than this. A jaw-dropper make comfortable for the younger set. Worth discovering.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Trouble for Trumpets by Peter Dallas Smith, ill. Peter Cross
- The Complete Brambly Hedge by Jill Barklem
- Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays by Winsor McCay
How can I make you love Claude Ponti? Hmmmm. I’ve got it! How about showing you one of his hedge sculptures. Resist the charm of this, if you can: