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Blackout

BlackoutI’ve been struggling with this book for a while.

There’s a lot to love about it, but what I’m not in love with is how Rocco has drawn the central characters. Is this just a personal dislike or is it actually a problem with the book? I don’t love beans, but that doesn’t make succotash a bad dish.

Most of the time I can tell whether a problem like this is mine or the book’s. If it’s just a “pet peeve” (ironically, I dislike that phrase for no rational reason), I request that the book be assigned to a different reviewer. This time, though, I’ll present my case and let you all tell me if I’m being a picky eater/reader.

BUT FIRST, here’s why I think this is a book the Committee will be talking about.

The pacing is as self-assured as an expertly edited movie. Beginning with a comic book format showing Egielski-ish city scenes, the panels, speech balloons, and caption boxes lead us along introducing the setting and characters. “And then…” (page turn) Whoa! No more white space around floating panels. Full bleed. Midnight blue background with subtle cross-hatching. Three horizontal city scenes with progressively fewer lit windows: “The lights / went / out.”

If you haven’t gotten your hands on this book yet, do. I’m guessing it’s a sure-fire hit in a group and will make the adult reading it aloud look like an expert storyteller. Rocco treats each scene like a suspense movie. Check out the overhead shot. It’s not just a Hitchcock homage but a clue to what will happen on the next spread. Genius.

Okay, you can see I love this book…except for those people. The settings are quite realistic and in TV terms most of this book would be classified as a drama, but to me the main characters have a sit-com feel all the way through. It’s not so much that some of them have elongated bodies and heads. I can see that this is Rocco’s style. My problem is with the facial expressions. I feel as if there are a finite number of eye and mouth positions and as a result the characters sometimes seem to be overacting or even mugging. I find this distracting, taking me away from my wholehearted belief in what is happening.

Isn’t John Rocco allowed to draw his people any darn way he wants? Is this my problem or a valid complaint?

Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the creative director for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogs for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.

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Comments

  1. I was puzzled by the characters, too, and wondered if they were supposed to be a tribute to the Pogo comic strip….or something.

  2. Here I am, whining again. I dislike intensely when the verso of the title page does not tell me what media the artist was working with. To some it does not matter, but to me it really does.
    This all looked too smooth and textureless for me. I loved the language – brilliantly brief – but the art left me cold.
    Am I agreeing with you, Lolly, or not?

  3. I was so engaged with the narration and illustrations that the characters seemed absolutely perfect to me. My review is at
    http://librariansquest.blogspot.com/2011/09/in-still-of-night.html
    It includes a link to a wonderful interview of John Rocco discussing his use of media at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. As my review states he most graciously responded to an email about the process used in illustrating Blackout.

  4. KT Horning says:

    Thanks for the link to your blog, Margie. I really enjoyed the book trailer. And you know what? I thought the real New Yorkers they interviewed looked like the people in the book.

    I can see what Lolly is saying, but I think it is a matter of personal taste. I haven’t had a chance to go back and look at the book closely, but could it be that everyone seems to have the same expression because they are peering into the dark? A lot of the expression seems to come from body postures.

  5. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    Until I checked out Margie’s review (see below) I wouldn’t have guessed that these were colored on the computer. I have this theory that publishers are less likely to include medium info if computer is involved because of the stigma people still have about this (see our Where’s Walrus? post).

    But to answer your question, GraceAnne, we don’t agree on this one. I loved the color palette and the general vibe. For me, smooth and textureless isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If smooth art is in keeping with the tone of the book, no problem. Sometimes there is a fine line between smooth and slick, and I doubt any of us like slick art in a PB. For me, though, Rocco’s art didn’t feel slick OR smooth because of his loose crosshatching and the Van Gogh lines in the sky.

  6. Lolly, just this minute I was afraid to look at the book again and see the flaws you mentioned, because I loved it on first reading. I am happy to say that revisiting it did not change my opinion at all – I think that the art is finely done, the story unique, and the execution spot-on. Honestly, I don’t see that the expressions are either overdone or too similar. I’d say that they are perfect for book with little text and less dialogue. For instance, when the mom and daughter come up on the roof and see the stars – not a common thing given city lights – the mom looks pleased and daughter is open-mouthed astonished. With dialogue or more text those things could have been conveyed by saying that, while in the book maybe, perhaps the expressions are exaggerated to get the same effect. But I think it is done perfectly within the narrow color palate and the style of the book. I do want to see this on the Caldecott list, and will be one person speaking for it on the Cybils list.

  7. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Another thing I appreciate about this book is the satisfaction my students got when they noticed that the book started with a street scene that they get to know better with each page turn. The reader just wants to peer into those windows and find out about the people who are just shadowy silhouettes. Turn the page and there they are: TV screen flickering, older kid chatting on phone, mom working at computer and dad making dinner. Later, after the party on the roof, they are treated to ice cream (and a run through the open hydrant) at Marzipan’s Ice Cream, also shown on that first spread. One of my kids noticed the funny picture of Edison looking down on the child who is playing video games, which gave her the chance to show off her knowledge of the inventor!

    The faces didn’t bother me a bit and I loved all the cross hatching and use of shadow and light. This time around, I realized that the cover and the jacket are different–both lovely. We are suburban Southerners here and love this slice of city life.

  8. Dean Schneider says:

    I have loved this book since I first saw it quite a while ago. I appreciate the narrative as well as the illustrations. I don’t have a problem with the bodies or the faces. I just see it as his way to do faces, as lots of illustrators have signature approaches to faces: Matt Phelan, and Don Brown come to mind. I was humored by KT’s seeing New Yorkers looking a lot like the characters in the book!

    I agree with GraceAnne: I, like to see information on the title page about the media used for the illustrations, too, but that’s an issue for the publisher, not a criticism of the illustrator’s work.

    I don’t find the illustrations cold; they seem kind of cozy to me. I love the whole palette of the book, and the design is excellent. Some of the lights-out, black-and-white shadows-on-the-wall images seem like an ode to early silent movies, and the double-page spread with one word–MOM-makes me think of Sendak’s IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN, though I’m not sure why. Maybe a similar font? And I like other touches: the picture of Thomas Edison on the wall, the Van Gogh Starry Night spread, etc.

    One of my favorites of the year..

  9. KT Horning says:

    Dean, I thought of In the Night Kitchen, too, because the dialogue bubbles and typeface within them is exactly the same. I was looking for the bakers on the roof!

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