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Review of the Day: Outside In by Deborah Underwood, ill. Cindy Derby

Outside In
By Deborah Underwood
Illustrated by Cindy Derby
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 9781328866820
Ages 4-7
On shelves April 14th.

Under normal circumstances I like the reviews I write to be timeless. To the best of my ability I do not root them in a specific time or place, so that when they are discovered ten, twenty, thirty years down the road they’ll be as pertinent as ever. But as I write this I am living through a historical event. The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the United States and so I am sheltering in my house like the rest of my country. On occasion I can go out and find places in nature to visit, but for the most part I am social distancing within my home. What better time then to tackle a picture book with a title like Outside In? Let it be known that in this book you will find winsome writing and evocative art, but you will not find a harangue. Nor a preach. Nor a didactic jolt to the senses. This book is not faulting you. It is simply showing how, for all that we wall ourselves up in our homes and cars, we can never truly block out the outside. It finds its way in to us. And right now, in the Spring, when the world seems scary, this may be the comforting book about what’s beyond our back doors that we all need right now.

It wasn’t always the way it is now. “Once we were part of Outside and Outside was part of us. There was nothing between us.” No longer. How often are we actually outside at all? Not when we ride in our cars or go into our homes. But you cannot deny that the outside is always around for us, gently reminding us that it’s there. You might forget it, but it’s in “clothes, once puffs of cotton,” and “in the warm weight of our cats and the rough fur of our dogs.” The Outside sometimes sneaks in (a bug in the bathroom) or enters boldly, like river in our sinks, “eager to return to the sea.” And so it stays and so it waits and eventually we come back to it.

It is safe to say that Deborah Underwood has had one of the more eclectic series of books out there. It is impossible to look at any title and say to yourself, “Classic Underwood” because she’s always launching herself in an entirely new direction. Personally, the two books of hers that I’ve always liked best are The Quiet Book and Bad Bye, Good Bye. In both cases you get this succinctness of language packed with a heavy undercurrent of unspoken meaning. Yet for all that she’s been lyrical for years, Outside In feels different. It’s as if she’s given up all pretense and opened herself up wholly to poetry. “Outside feeds us. Sun, rain, and seeds become warm bread and berries.” Or, later, “Outside steals inside: a spider seeking shelter, a boxelder bug in the bath, a tiny snail on kale” (and extra points for calling out those sneaky boxelder bugs). I think what I like best, though, is the clarity of the storytelling. Though this book has layers of meaning, a kid will understand instantly what the author is trying to say. The outside wants to play with you. Best that you meet it halfway.

On occasion, it can feel like an author is testing their artist. I’m not saying that they do this on purpose. But somewhere in a back corner of Deborah Underwood’s brain, in a hidden crevice so deep that no one would even know it was there, surely there must have been some part of her that thought, “What would my illustrator do if I wrote something like “Outside beckons with smells: sunbaked, fresh, and mysterious.” Enter Cindy Derby. Personally, I like to follow Cindy Derby’s career. It’s like watching the petals of a flower unfurl. There’s something to her style that grows and changes and learns and invents more and more with each book that she does. Most folks probably know her best for her debut How to Walk an Ant though my heart and soul will always belong to the art she created for Climbing Shadows: Poems for Children. Outside In is very much in the Climbing Shadows vein, if with a bit more narrative drive.

I once compared the art of Derby to that of Stephen Gammell, and for sheer watercolor splatter I don’t think I was wrong to do so. But let’s step back a bit and look at precisely what it is that Derby accomplishes with this book. Observe what she’s doing with light. How a walk in the woods after a rain when the sky is light but gray looks a certain way. Or how shadows flicker through sunny windows and cause the legs of chairs to resemble their former tree-like selves. The outside featured in this book feels damp and wet but strangely manageable. Even as Derby swoops the reader from high above the earth below, she always returns to the little things, much as Underwood’s text does too. Underwood can talk about the snail on the kale, but it’s Derby who gives that snail importance. It observes the girl going into her house, it waits when she exits, and the last image of this book is of the girl holding it, gently, on the tip of her finger.

This book isn’t interested in taking a deep dive into man vs. nature or any of that claptrap. The Outside here isn’t going to scare you with thunderstorms or wild animals. This Outside is the one that fills a small child’s heart with wonder if and when they get to experience it on their own, alone. “I’m here, Outside says. I miss you.” We miss you too, baby. And one of these days we’ll be together again. Until that happy time arrives, though, we’ll have this beautiful book to stand by our side. Inside, in our arms, where it belongs.

On shelves April 14th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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.