In many of the books we look at for this blog, the illustrator has created virtuosic art that looks as if it required a lot of time and skill. Perkins, on the other hand, makes it look easy.
As far as I can tell, all of Lynne Rae Perkins’s work has a feeling of improvisation and spontaneity, as if anything could happen at any time. She reminds me of Hilary McKay in that her books don’t have the noticeable connective tissue I’m used to seeing when I read critically. We follow where she leads because the journey is so interesting. Somewhere near the end we realize that everything has actually been carefully planned.
Perkins’s books truly are tightly crafted, with art and text honed down to the essentials, like a sentence by E. B. White. The book begins, “One day when Frank could not win for losing, he got Lucky. And one day when Lucky was lost and found, he got Frank.” The illustrations leading up to this spread extend these statements, allowing us to see exactly how bad their respective days were. As the book continues, Perkins uses the school device referred to in the title: as boy and dog play together, they learn geography, history, math, science, etc. It all feels like play, but we learn plenty of interesting facts. The text delivery varies, including direct address, multiple choice, and frequent use of thought- and dialogue balloons that extend the story, particularly where Lucky’s worldview is concerned.
Perkins’s art here is similar to that in her previous books. Interiors are ultra-cozy, with deep colors and wide shadows where the white text can contrast comfortably with the background. Exteriors use a surprisingly vibrant palette that indicates how much both Frank and Lucky prefer the outdoors. I especially like the way the artist incorporates check boxes, dotted lines, and other workbook-like elements right into her art. When Lucky encounters a skunk, there is a chemistry opportunity: what will counteract the skunky “smell molecules”? Shampoo? Baking soda? Tomato juice? At night, Lucky takes up varying portions of Frank’s bed, shown with clear geometry diagrams.
Every lesson is humorous and perfectly attuned to its central characters. I especially love the moments when Perkins takes a new, unexpected turn. Lucky’s thoughts have been appearing in cloudlike thought balloons from the start, while Frank and other humans have dialogue balloons showing actual speech. Suddenly, halfway through the book, we find that Frank is able to read some of Lucky’s thoughts. But of course! There’s also the appearance of a snail who has an unexpected cameo — a speaking part, no less, as we learn a little of its history and the (ubiquitous) Fibonacci sequence.
Over at Heavy Medal this week, they are discussing this book as a Newbery contender (although they are tripped up by some clunky Spanish usage when Frank meets a new neighbor who helps him find Lucky, who has a tendency to chase ducks). Perkins won the 2006 Newbery Medal for Criss Cross, though she has created more picture books than novels. Is this her year for a Caldecott?
I’m afraid I think it’s a long shot, mainly because the award tends to go to books with flashier art. But as far as I’m concerned, that holy grail of picture books — perfect pairing of text and art — doesn’t get any better than this. Maybe an honor book? Or maybe there are enough dog lovers on this year’s committee to allow them to give it real chance. Stranger things have happened.