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Now

Last year’s Wait by Antoinette Portis was a wonderfully simple but profound paean to children’s ability to observe and take notice while adults rush rush rush everywhere and miss everything, from tiny ladybugs to glorious rainbows. This year’s Now is not all that different: it focuses on a young girl living fully in the moment as she plays, eats, drinks, smells a flower, climbs a tree, sings, etc.

I did love Wait; and because I loved Wait I was eager to read Now. And I think that’s only natural. According to Caldecott rules, committee members may not compare books of previous years to books of the current year. But it’s impossible to shut the earlier books out absolutely. I think how it works with me is: a book might get an initial leg up because of my admiration for its illustrator’s previous work — I might move that book up to the top of the pile — but once I start looking at a book in earnest, using the Caldecott criteria, all that falls away and it stands alone, to be measured only against its fellow 2017 contenders.

So, Now. In terms of the criteria’s “delineation of theme…through the pictures,” it excels. It’s really pretty much all theme, this picture book: an exhortation to mindfulness. The artist’s choice of media supports the theme beautifully, with the brushstrokes creating a palpable texture and giving a sensory quality to the art. Look at the “This is my favorite breeze” spread: you can feel the breeze; see it as it crosses the girl’s face. “This is my favorite mud”: yep, that’s some thick, gloppy, muddy mud. And “my favorite song”: I love how the song is represented, as a spiral yellow brushstroke emanating from the girl’s open mouth.

I’m not sure this effect carries through the whole book (some spreads, for instance the cloud spread, is much less intense), but perhaps it would be difficult to sustain — or perhaps too boring! For instance, I like that the book shakes the theme up a bit (humorously!) with “This is my favorite tooth / because it’s the one that is missing” and “This was my favorite boat” as her paper boat disappears down a storm drain.

The saturated colors also give the objects in the book a lushness, a solid reality: the intense red of the leaf, the concentrated brown of the mud, the deep pink of the flower — that saturation, used in service of making the viewer really LOOK at the object or experience, supports the theme, too. And Portis accomplishes all this without making her art at all hyper-realistic — a lot of it is quite abstract, in fact. See the undulating brushstroke lines that represent rushing water, for instance, or, as previously mentioned, the spiraling brushstroke lines of the girl’s song. And if you are looking for background detail, don’t. White space is used generously, and effectively, to keep our attention completely on the girl and her vivid, mindfully lived, experiences. That, too, is fitting.

Now has a mindful picture-book shape, as well, as the girl moves through her day toward evening — when, home, she hugs her cat and gazes at the moon — and bedtime — where she reads a book with her mother, bringing a human, social, emotional element into a story that has previously focused mostly on individual experience, on the senses. It brings in a different way to celebrate being alive: love, family.

Now is one of those “quiet” books Patrick Gall referenced in his post about Tony. What do you think? Does Now hold its own against other quiet 2017 titles?

Martha V. Parravano About Martha V. Parravano

Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.

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  1. I, too, really appreciated the brushstrokes and texture. I think the book would be almost too much (though too much what, I’m not sure) if everything were done with with smooth lines and colors – the same choices that worked perfectly in Egg, for example, would have been out of place here.

    The use of whitespace is particularly well done, to my mind. The focus if very solidly on the experiences of the girl. Yet there is never an overwhelming amount of white. In fact, as I flip through, there are only two spreads where white dominates across both pages. The first is the mud/worm spread, where the whitespace really allows the juxtaposition of the legs coming from the top and the arms coming from the bottom to pop. The other is smell/bird, though I don’t see a particular reason for it there. Elsewhere there are other colors in the background. I am sitting here looking at the gulp/bite spread and appreciating that the girl is facing in opposite directions while drinking and eating. It would have been more obvious to mimic the same position for the two similar actions, and yet I think it is more visually interesting to do it this way.

    I was going to say that the book could function as a prose poem without the illustrations, but I change my mind, because I think that final pageturn to “with you” is so powerful, and really does change how I perceive just the words on their own. Speaking of the words, since we can consider them if we find they make it less effective, I did find it increasingly annoying on my re-reads that there is one section that rhymes (swinging/singing), when the rest of the story does not.

    I’m not sure that this is in my top choices for the year, but there’s a lot to love about it.

  2. I believe it does. Like you Martha, I had very high regard for last year’s WAITING, and I feel NOW may rate a slight edge, not because of the concept (both were exemplary in that regard) but because the “sumi ink, brush and bamboo stick -color added digitally” illustrations are so sumptuous. This striking book doe smake for a captivating read for first-graders. They automatically ask to have it read to them a second time, which is always the surefire sign they adore the book. Totally agree with you on the effectiveness of the saturated colors, and the red leaf helps make the cover the book one of 2017’s finest. The brushstrokes do indeed create a texture so appropriate for the book’s theme – we live for the moment. The use of space really does work exceedingly well in keeping the girl center stage at all times.

    Portis is so good at accentuating the small moment, and developing strong emotion from such striking set pieces. NOW is not only aesthetically beautiful but is beloved by its target readers. It has well-earned this fabulous qualification review for you Martha, and should receive some serious scrutiny from the committee.

  3. Martha, I didn’t even notice how ‘Now’ moves us through the day until I read your post! As you mention, I think the book’s strength is how well Portis’ artwork is appropriate for the theme of the book. You write, “In terms of the criteria’s “delineation of theme…through the pictures,” it excels.” YES, YES, YES! I echo your observations. Portis’ choice of size, colors, medium, etc. perfectly reflects the book’s theme. For example, the colors are (to borrow your adjectives) saturated and lush, but not loud.

    Mindfulness can be a tricky concept to convey to children and I’ve seen a few books where mindfulness is preached at kids and ironically it causes me to roll my eyes and lost interest immediately. Portis capitalizes on children’s natural inclination to live in the moment (example, right after I read a book aloud, all my students want to check it out claiming it is their “favorite book”) and connects it with the idea of mindfulness.

    Does it remind anyone else of a Margaret Wise Brown?

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