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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Review of the Day: When You Look Up by Decur

When You Look Up
By Decur
Translated by Chloe Garcia Roberts
Enchanted Lion Books
$29.95
ISBN: 978-1-59270-293-0
Ages 6-10
On shelves now

In retrospect, I was probably a bit too optimistic. Cast your mind back a little to when, for just a moment there, books for children began to experiment with their visual elements. We were seeing things like Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a massive tome of a title, win a Caldecott for best picture book. Books like The Arrival by Shaun Tan, which straddle what we think of as graphic novels (to say nothing of picture books as well) weren’t just popular but critically acclaimed. It was exciting! The categories were falling by the wayside. Comics were getting respect and trying new things! And then . . . I dunno, man. I don’t want to say it all went stagnant since we’ve had so many wonderful books in the interim, but after that initial flush of creativity it was like everyone doubled down on staying in their lane. Picture books look like picture books and they’re rarely very long. Comics look like comics and inevitably they have the same print size. It’s rare that my little heart goes pitta-pat when I see something that’s different…. but never say never. When you least expect it, sometimes you’re lucky enough to be handed a book that is equal parts fable and mystery. A picture book and a graphic novel and an early chapter book and a bedtime story all rolled into one impossible-to-define package. I’m not even kidding when I say that When You Look Up by Decur gives you a deep and abiding faith in 21st century storytelling. Now if only I could figure out where to shelve it…

A boy named Lorenzo and his mother move to a big old house in the country. When he encounters his new room he finds an old roll top desk sitting on one side. Some light exploring yields a secret door hiding a large notebook. Inside are fantastical stories of all kinds. In the first (“The Bronze Dragon”) a little rabbit makes a mistake and almost pays a terrible price. “The Boot and the Hat” tells the tale of a cat that comes to the aid of the giraffe it so desperately loves. “The Factory,” in contrast, is a desperately sad and scary tale of a quail that watches its friends become consumed on the factory line where they work. At this point, Lorenzo begins to realize that there are real world equivalents to the things he reads in the notebook. Yet it isn’t until he reads the last story, “My Dream Voyager,” that Lorenzo cracks the mystery of the notebook and the truth that sometimes we don’t want to be rescued. We just want to be found.

Americans don’t like things that look very different. We’re quite enamored of things that, instead, remind us of other things. For example, we very much like it when our picture books pay homage to classic artistic styles of the past. We revel in art that emulates the artists we already love. But when it comes to art from other cultures or countries, something freezes up inside of us. It’s as if we fear to appreciate what we’re seeing. Because I am a librarian, I have a tendency to use my children as test subjects. As such, I read When You Look Up to my six-year-old son, wondering how he’d take the whole thing. I’ve mentioned before that librarians will have a hard time figuring out where in the collection to put this book. I’ve seen Baker & Taylor (our distributor) list it as a graphic novel, and I understand the instinct. It is, after all, very visual. But while there are occasionally panels and sometimes some speech balloons, this book can also feel like an extended multi-part picture book. Thanks to the look of it, my son was captivated from the start. I think it gave him more of an emotional ride than he was expecting. He was surprised by the sadness of “The Factory” and seemed to take comfort in both the last story in the notebook “My Dream Voyager” which, in turn, echoes the same bittersweet (but mostly sweet) feeling you have at the end of the book. Parents that give this book a try with their kids will find it to be exceedingly accessible.

Because each story in the notebook is accompanied by art made of cut paper, so too has Decur taken the time to make sure that while most of the book is all paints and colored pencil lines, the notebook’s stories are cut paper. Alas, the publication page doesn’t confess to the medium in which Decur is working. What we do know is that the art in this book really does use paint and cut paper. Moreover, Decur is a self-taught artist. That fact is extraordinary to me as his art style, while utterly unique, feels so self-confident and accomplished. And, thanks to the cleverness of his plotting, I loved the visual callbacks throughout the story. Some you’ll notice right away (like the boy scout outfit on the kitty/kid) but others make take a reread or two.

I could wax eloquent on the art all day long (and it’s hard not to when you have such a magnificent combination of styles, angles, panels, and points of view) but I think all the reviewers of this book will probably do that. Let’s just acknowledge as well the fact that you can draw pretty books all day, but unless the story inside hits home it won’t count for boo. The translation from the original Spanish by Chloe Garcia Roberts deserves its own little shout out. There’s a succinctness to the writing that serves the plotting well. But surprisingly (at least to me) it’s the plot that I may have loved most. This is the kind of book that’s clever without giving away evidence of its cleverness until you reach the end. The whole time you’re reading this you’re participating in a kind of mystery without even knowing it. This came to me as such a relief, particularly since early on the book strives a bit too hard to drill home the put-down-your-phone-and-experience-the-world messaging (Laszlo even tries to make a book’s image larger with his fingers). All that sort of disappears as the plot picks up. And one could probably grumble that the storyline relies on an awful lot on coincidences (example: Lorenzo overhears two aides in a retirement community mention that one of the people there spends his days just cutting little pieces of paper and instantly he knows the man has a connection to the notebook). I wasn’t bothered by any of that. To my mind it’s just a clever way of having the universe show us we don’t have to be alone.

Every time I read this book, I discover something new on its pages. It’s the kind of story that rewards re-readings. But the real kicker? Honestly, this is one of those titles that is not only cool in appearance, kids will honestly like it. Don’t be put off by its attractive, literary look, oh parents of the young. This is the artistic beauty of a book you’ve been waiting for. And for those of you that have been desperately searching for a cool gift for a kid (the one that marks you as a special, slightly kooky person in a child’s life) When You Look Up is the perfect gift. Honestly, who cares if you don’t know where to shelve it? A book that’s quite a bit smarter and more beautiful than it has any right to be.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Misc: Prefer to read the original Spanish? Then there’s some happy news for you. This book is being simultaneously published both in English and in Spanish (as Cuando Levantas la Mirada). Feel free to get both. No one will call you greedy.

Videos:

We all love process. So check out this interview with Decur as he talks about his work and how he found his calling:

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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.