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Du Iz Tak?

du-iz-takHave you seen Du Iz Tak? Carson Ellis’s oversized gouache and ink spreads are impressive to be sure, but it’s her ear for entomological dialogue that shines in this one; well, I’ll let you be the judge. Not to give too much away, but at the emotional climax (***spoiler alert*** when the flowering plant that has been the focal point of the story bursts into bloom) a sampling of character exclamations reads:

“Iz unk gladdenboot!”
“Unk scrivadelly gladdenboot!”
[… silent contemplation from a sowbug as she/it puffs huge smoke rings on a pipe]
“Unk gladdenboot!”
“Su!”

Okay … so I’m being a bit disingenuous; I actually don’t have a clue what any of that means (does “gladdenboot” mean blossom, and “scrivadelly” beautiful?). But it’s hard to deny Ellis has achieved something pretty remarkable with Du Iz Tak?: her visual storytelling is so rich in detail, so beautiful in its bizarre worldbuilding, that young readers can follow the plot without needing to decipher the invented language.

The character development here is some of the strongest one will find in a picture book this year, and it is achieved almost entirely through gesture and expression. There’s the trio of childlike beetle friends who build a Swiss Family Robinson-esque “furt” (a fort, complete with a Jolly Roger flag … that is, if pirates had antennae) in the growing plant; the helpful, jack-of-all-trades sowbug with a way-too-small bowler hat who loans the beetles a “ribble” (ladder) and then proceeds to fall asleep reading a book out on a chaise longue; the violin-playing grasshopper (any musicologists out there want to analyze Ellis’s musical notation?); the stick insect who stays hidden for most of the story (one of many visual Easter eggs Ellis leaves for readers to find and delight in). At the cataclysmic moment when a huge bird flies off with an interloping spider, watch the reactions from each character. Disappointment becomes terror melts into relief and then (when the plant blooms) awe, shown largely through the body language and countenances of myriad six-legged critters. Nicely done, Ms. Ellis.

I should probably admit that I have a bit of history with Ellis’s work. But remember, Caldecott committee members are allowed to consider “only the books eligible for the award”; in other words, if an artist has made work in the past that I as a Real Committee member have found problematic, or amazingly beautiful, or somewhere in between, no matter. I am charged with considering only the books published in 2016. Committee members can’t consider Ellis’s past work — they can look only at this title. Which is hard (really, really hard!), but essential to the process. (At the same time, it’s heartening to note that inclusiveness is now a part of the Caldecott manual — see page 25.)

Remember that the Caldecott Medal is “given to the artist of the most distinguished picture book for children”; four definitions of “distinguished” are listed alongside, one of which reads “Individually distinct.” Ellis’s weird/wonderful Du Iz Tak? is nothing if not individually distinct. I don’t really understand everything about it, but does that knock it out of contention? And more importantly, will the members of the Real Committee get it — and find it individually distinct — enough to land it a “scrivadelly” medal on the cover?

 

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About Sam Bloom

Sam Bloom is a former elementary and middle school teacher. He is currently senior children's librarian at the Blue Ash branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County in Ohio.

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Comments

  1. Sam, I still haven’t warmed up to this book as much as I expected I would when I rushed out to the Curious Reader Bookstore in Glen Rock, New Jersey to pick up a copy on the release date. I love Ellis’ HOME and agree this is marvelously detailed (and sublime) work. And yes I also concur that kids can follow the narrative without deciphering the language. My own classroom students however, didn’t connect with it, no doubt because they are first graders and this book I believe will be more effective in 2nd and 3rd. But this is nothing more than speculation on my part. My issue isn’t with the alien lingo, which is just as inventive as David Wiesner’s in MR. WUFFLES, but rather in the aesthetic realm, where I don’t feel the extensive use of white space is pleasing pictorially or thematically. Well, at least not like anything we’ve seen consistently from Jon Klassen. yet I have not given up on this book remotely, and will somehow correct the error of my ways. 🙂 Marvelous and candid review here.

  2. Sam Bloom says:

    Thanks for reading, Sam J. I actually love the use of white / negative space – I didn’t mention it in the review, but I think it works well in showing the expanse of the bugs’ world. (And the wide-open-spaces spreads work nicely against the impactful, extra busy spreads – I’m thinking of the bird’s big moment – and in that spread, you get a real sense of how HUGE and utterly TERRIFYING the bird is in comparison, and I think that is largely due to the negative space she uses otherwise.) I’ve not used this with a group yet, but child appeal is part of the criteria, so that would come into play in discussion. That said, I’d love to hear if any other readers have experience using this one with kids, and what their reactions have been?

  3. Brenda Martin says:

    Regarding the white/negative space, I know this is taking it way too literally, but my issue with it was that this area seemed to be teeming with insects and other wildlife (spider, bird). So why was it so open and barren with just this one plant growing here? I’m with Sam J in that I did honestly want to very much like this one, but it left me colder than I expected. It will make a good, unique collection book, but for me it is not particularly noteworthy for award season.

  4. I will say this – if you’re having trouble with this one, I recommend reading it aloud with a child. What began for me as an intriguing title for the artwork alone has become my favorite book of the year for its clever and fun use of language. I hope it takes away a prize!

  5. Yoomi Larmee says:

    My 3 and 4 year olds LOVED this book. They could not stop laughing at the nonsensical sounding words! We ended up reading it three times in one sitting. Each time, we noticed a different detail that showed how time was passing and the seasons were changing. I think the white space around those details helped them focus. I do have to say, I don’t know if I would have enjoyed it as much without my kids laughing. 🙂

  6. Joanne Rubenstein says:

    I have been reading this book to my K-5 classes all week. The students, Including those boys who always sit at the back of the rug, were all lit up.. They ate up all the details in the bottom left hand corner of each spread, and completely lost it when the stick bug stood up and when the bird ate the spider. One really cool thing I noticed in class after class is that the ESL kids were quicker than most others at translating the bug language.

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