Covers make the book, and both of these titles, related by theme, have stunning covers. Once you see them, you are unlikely to forget them. That lone bluebird flying over the city portends the poignant story within, and that bull, bathed in bold red, defiantly glaring, dares the reader to even open the book.
The reason I want to talk about these two books together is that they touch on the same theme: bullying. There are times when a committee might gather all the books on a topic and talk about them together. This year, we have at least three train books that are exceptional, and, so far, two books that touch on the tricky subject of meanness/bullying/social cruelty. What if the chair decides they could be talked about together? I am not saying the chair will, but sometimes it is an interesting way to jump-start a discussion.
How might that go? First, the books would stand together on the table and people would compare them.
Similarities: Both author-illustrators tell their stories with very few words. Both employ limited color palettes: Staake uses grays and sky blue, Seeger favors lots of brown on brown textured paper. Both present the idea of mean kids as the complex idea it is, rarely one-sided. In Bully, the little brown bull starts out with the angry words “GO AWAY!” being hurled at him. In Bluebird, the mean kids show remorse (and then run away). The committee would probably talk about characters and how they might connect with the intended audience. And here is where the conversation would turn to the individual books.
Staake’s incomparable computer-created graphic design is complicated and emotional. Scattered throughout the cityscape are street signs and business names that are the only words (“The Steadfast Independent: Books,” “Gotham Café”) in this story of friendship and loss. The protagonist, a little boy in a striped shirt, is befriended by a bluebird whose bluish purple color is brilliant against the light blue sky and the gray world that is school. Panels of varying sizes, spread across the gutter at times, give clues as to how time is passing in this friendship. The little bird helps this loner meet kids at the park, and the illustrations lighten. It’s the light in this book that really sets the tone, especially when the boy starts home and is met by three kids who try to take his toy sailboat and end up killing the bluebird, who deflects the thrown stick. There is a moment of reflection and sorrow when a redbird enters the scene. Suddenly, birds of all colors fly the little boy into the air, where he sends his friend into the clouds. The final endpapers show the little boy smiling at the clouds. To get back to Martha’s question here, the committee will talk about the story. Since this is wordless, the committee will have to decide if the story is clear to the reader or open to interpretation? The champions of this book will have to answer the inevitable questions about sadness and loss that Thom Barthelmess talked about here. Though there is nothing in the world to stop a “sad” book from winning the Caldecott, the committee will discuss how the pictures tell the story.
Seeger’s india ink outlines (drawn with an ink-dipped STICK, for goodness’ sake) on handmade paper are bold, with most pages containing a lot of open brown-speckled space. Amongst the committee there would be discussion of the handmade paper and whether that adds to the story. Why was it chosen? The fence in each spread is important as it helps the reader realize that the little bull is staying in the same place but his size is fluctuating. By the time the goat calls him out, the bull is no longer a little bull at all–indeed the open space is just a sliver, and his eyes are creased with worry and remorse. And by the end, he is the right size again and the fence has its first opening, just wide enough for the new friends to walk through. Together. I think the committee will dive deeply into the simplicity of the story, and the book’s champions will have a lot of fun pointing out how the design of each page is carefully constructed to show the emotional state of the little bull and how Seeger uses the boundaries of the book, even allowing her main character to nearly explode out of them.
In the end, I think they, as I do, will see some thematic similarities, but will struggle with direct comparison (just as I did). The more I think about it, the more I realize how difficult it is to compare any book to another.
Both of these books have been around for awhile. Have you seen them? Shared them with children? What do you think of them as visual experiences?