Most of us associate illustrator Jonathan Bean with a more representative style and a less saturated medium. (Think Building Our House and This Is My Home, This Is My School.) But of course the Real Committee can’t be thinking about that, and anyway Bean made the right artistic choice for this book’s impressionistic text. The art is composed of “hand-stenciled shapes and textures layered with the computer and printed in four Pantone colors,” and I love the effects Bean achieves. With the stenciling and textures you practically breathe in the dust, feel the beating-down of the sun, experience the stampede. The double-page spreads are dramatic when appropriate, a little more subdued when that’s appropriate, too. Almost every spread keeps the eye moving forward, toward the right, toward the next page-turn, whether with the placement of text or the direction horse or cowboy or steer is moving. Clouds, rain, snow, dust storms, stars — all feel so immediate, and the truly glorious skyscapes (with clouds or shooting stars incorporating cow or horse shapes) take the viewer’s breath away.
Just look at the cover for an example of what Bean is doing here and how he does it. Note how the shapes and colors work together. The angles of the calf’s head and hooves and knee (do calves even have knees? — but you know what I mean) contrasts with the curve of the cowboy’s arms, which encircle it; the dark colors of the flashlight, cowboy hat, and cowboy boots punctuate the composition; the light from the flashlight helps even more with where to look — and somehow the contrasting patterns of the cowboy’s shirt and scarf and the dappled colors of the calf, sky, and sand work in harmony together. And the content of the cover is important, too — the cowboy is not swaggerin’ or spittin’ or throwin’ a lasso; he’s nursing the calf, tenderly giving the calf a bottle, so we know not to expect the usual macho cowboy treatment once we open the book.
I think there might be a little push me-pull you tension, though, between how careful the text is to note that real cowboys “are as many different colors as the earth” and that they can be “girls,” and how few clear, intentional examples of those things we get throughout the book. We do see some brown faces; I’m not sure we see any definitely female cowboys except on the page where it’s mentioned. But if that’s a bump on the trail rather than a roadblock for the Real Committee, I can see this book getting some Real Love.