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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Review of the Day: Going Down Home with Daddy by Kelly Starling Lyons and Daniel Minter

I pick the books I review based on a complicated set of criteria that only makes sense to me. Often it has to do with a number of different factors, one of which is whether or not the children’s book in question relates to my own life at all. As I type this, I am gearing up for a trip to New Orleans. My mother and father-in-law will be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary and they would like their children and their children’s families to join them. And, naturally, at the very last minute it occurred to me that I should have been planning a gift for them all along. Indeed, that’s the sort of thing that would normally take months of planning. Instead, I’m sitting here reviewing a picture book. Why? Because out of all the books published this year, this is the one that right now understands me best. In Going Down Home With Daddy you’ll find a book that celebrates family and tradition, but also the pressure to produce something meaningful for the people you love. We are all Lil Alan sometimes. This book understands that.

It should be one of his favorite times of the year. The time when the family loads up the car before the sun is even shining and drives down to Granny’s house. The time when sisters and uncles and cousins all gather too, and everybody looks at the land they love. But this year is different. This year, all the grandkids are supposed to do something special. Something that speaks to the family in some way. Only problem is, Lil Alan can’t think of anything to say or do or make. His cousins have all come up with their own wonderful ideas but him? He’s stumped. It isn’t until he stops and listens that a natural idea at last comes to him. One that fits right in with his strong, loving family.

I’ve always liked Daniel Minter’s work on picture books, sure. Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness is probably one of the great underrated nonfiction picture books of 2016. But it was this book in particular that made me want to check out his portfolio. Travel to his website and you’ll see beautiful, sumptuous paintings as full of undulating light as they are intricate patterns. There can only be one conclusion: until the creation of Going Down Home With Daddy, Mr. Minter has been holding out on us. He’s been hoarding his talents for his adult works, giving us only glimpses over the years. I don’t know what changed with Lyons’ book but something broke the dam and now Minter has released his acrylic washes to see what they can really do.

Of course, when I encounter a book as original as this one, my instinct is to try to compare it to something I already know. So when I see how Minter paints a silhouette I want to connect him to Jacob Lawrence. Except there’s a nuance at work here that you won’t find in a Lawrence painting. Start at the top. Look at the first few images in this book. Look at how Minter has painted the pre-dawn light. It’s that strange blue that appears mere moments before the sun. Look at how he paints the dawn, the ants on Alan’s shirt, and finally those glorious glorious chickens. There’s not a human being alive in this world that does a chicken as well as Daniel Minter. They look like ambulatory Slovakian Easter eggs, standing out with their bold colors and designs against the much bolder, fainter patterns that grace the road in front of Granny’s house. I could spend hours comparing and contrasting the way that nature looks like it’s made out of watercolors (it isn’t) while the features of the humans disappear when they’re silhouetted against the sunny sky. Did you see the outlines of the cotton, floating like ghosts, behind Daddy when he indicates the land? Or how Granny is portrayed on that last page, with a tree on her gown, its roots running deep deep down and its branches running up her back and sides. Geez, this is a gorgeous book. You just want to take out the pages and frame each and every one.

When a picture book gets a particularly talented artist, it can be easy to overlook the work of the writer. But make no mistake, it doesn’t matter how talented an artist is. No artist can make a book with mediocre text stand out from the crowd. Kelly Starling Lyons actually worked with Mr. Minter back in 2012 on Ellen’s Broom. Since that time they have both been honing their skills. Now if you just look at the gist of the plot in Going Down Home you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was pretty bare bones. Family + anxiety = picture book gold. That’s why I was grateful that Ms. Lyons didn’t spare us the details. Details bring a picture book to life. It’s what separates the so-so from the great. So first off, you have the language at work here, which is something to behold. Sometimes it’s just little things, like a sentence that reads, “Just before satin night falls, we sit outside on porch steps and metal lawn chairs.” Sometimes it’s little details, like the fact that Granny’s kisses are “peppermint” or that there’s a dinner that contains, “biscuits oozing with mayhew jelly, just the way Daddy likes.” And sometimes it’s just how a book’s action ebbs and flows. How the story takes you from car to walking to riding to performing, and finally to leaving. A true book of family should make you wish you, like the characters, never had to leave. Of course, by having this book in hand, you never have to. Not really.

Eventually we figured out what to do with my own problem. My daughter will write poems, one for each thing her grandma and grandpa care about. My son will do a dance for a video. Me? I’ll make a scarf. But it’s hard not to want to have the guts of Lil Alan. When you write a picture book you want a main character that people can relate to. Well, I relate to Alan, but I’m also envious of him. He knows exactly what he owes his family. He knows how strong the bonds are, and what will mean the most to them. Maybe I’m a little envious of Kelly Starling Lyons too. She knows how to write a killer book. Plus she got paired with the incomparable Daniel Minter, so right there. Right there. But really, I have no time to be envious of anyone. I’m using that time instead to be just so darn grateful this book exists at all. Family rendered in its most beautiful light. A treasure in hand indeed.

On shelves now.

Source: F&G sent for review from publisher.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.