It was a good night for children’s books last night at the 84th annual Academy Awards. Hugo (based on Brian Selznick’s Caldecott winner The Invention of Hugo Cabret) won several technical awards. I was also very excited to see The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore receive an Oscar for best animated short film.
Children’s author William Joyce first conceived of Morris Lessmore as a book, but interestingly, the picture book version will not be released by Atheneum until June 12. (We’ve just received galley copies.) Instead, the story was first developed as a short film and an app. The February 2011 release of the just-over-fourteen-minutes short film version (co-directed by Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg) coincided with the launch of Moonbot Studios which produced the film. Both film and interactive iPad app have been very well received; we’ll see how the children’s literature world accepts the picture book version later this year.
The plot centers around book lover Morris, who discovers a special library where the books are animate; he then spends his life interacting with and caring for them. Joyce uses color (and the lack thereof) to great effect: when Morris and other characters are connected to books they appear in color, while those without books live in a monochromatic world. In this way Morris Lessmore takes a cue from films like The Wizard of Oz and Pleasantville that rely on a similar before-and-after color effect. Joyce also cites inspiration from Hurricane Katrina, actor Buster Keaton, American publisher William C. Morris, and New Orleans storyteller Coleen Salley.
While the picture book’s text makes plot points clearer than the wordless animation, the tale’s fluidity, magic, and humor come across more effectively in the film. A few things the film is able to accomplish that the book cannot: the books actually fly across the screen; the characters change to color instantaneously (making the transformation all the more magical); the film’s narrative has a smoother flow and is uninhibited by page count limitations; and the music provides an additional layer of emotion.
I feel the film out-performs the picture book, but I’m curious to hear what other people think after comparing the different versions of this story. The film’s animation win last night was certainly well-deserved. But in any form, The Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is a tribute to librarians, teachers, and book lovers everywhere.