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Way back in September, we started the blog with a few possible titles and asked for suggestions. The exclamation points started flyin’ when Aaron Becker’s Journey was not on the list. Outrage! Horror! Well, sometimes books don’t make it to the hinterlands of not-New York and not-Boston, and I had some scrambling to do. I’m so glad I did. Keeping with the theme of Wordless Week, I will now use a zillion words to talk about one wordless 40-page book.

When I first looked, I was astounded to read on the copyright page (thank you, publishers that put information about art on the copyright page!) that the art was created in pen and ink and watercolor. Watercolor. Becker created a world that is both large and lush and filled with teeny details, details that are difficult to achieve in such a loose medium. And pen and ink. That’s a tricky medium, too, and there are a LOT of TEENY lines in these illustrations. I visited Becker’s website and watched the video about how this project was created and was mesmerized by the lines and color he employed.

The story is a familiar one–a little girl creating her world with one red pen. But, what a world it is! In the beginning, her world is a flat, dull, brownish gray place. Her family is busy (reminiscent of John Rocco’s Blackout) with phones, computers, and other devices. The opening spread has only the slightest touch of color: her red scooter, a boy’s purple chalk, and a purple bird flying over skyscrapers. There are no borders, but the boxes that show the rooms of the house create a boundary of their own. And the cutaway of the house extends to show the sewers of the city and the basement of the house, complete with water heaters and other machinery. Turn the page (and you DO want to turn these pages!) and all boundaries are stripped away as the girl tries to pull her busy family away from their devices with a red scooter, red kite, and red ball. Dejected, she returns to her room, which is all straight lines: walls, door, window, even the beam of light. The only things that are not angular are an air balloon suspended from the ceiling, the continents drawn on the map on the wall, a sleeping cat, and the girl herself. Hints of things to come.

When the napping cat leaves, a piece of red chalk is revealed, and then the story really gets going. The girl, like Harold, draws on her white wall and creates a portal into another world, a world carefully constructed by the illustrator. When she runs through the red door, the page turn creates a Wizard of Oz moment, where all the world is lush and green and light and hung with blue lanterns. The red door reveals the dull brown world left behind.

Rather than drag you, one eyeball at a time, through each page turn, I bring to your attention the pages where the girl draws new things, which employ a tremendous amount of white space (for her to draw on) and the girl is shown three times on that white page, making her new drawings. She draws a boat, a hot-air balloon, a magic carpet, and, finally, a bicycle built for two (remember that boy from the very first spread?).

As she visits these magical lands, Becker creates a world full of detail worthy of David Macaulay’s best work. The reader moves closer and closer as the story progresses, starting with the amazingly detailed view of a castle with its moats and waterways, then to the air where she discovers a steampunk (I think I am using this term correctly) vehicle filled with hunters who catch the purple bird (remember the bird from the first spread?). While in this vehicle, the perspective is close indeed, showing the gargantuan size of the flying machine when the tiny soldiers are marching across a bridge. When the red chalk is lost, the girl’s world goes dull again until the freed purple bird, drenched in a red sky, returns it.

It’s just all so glorious, and I know the committee is going to enjoy poring over every single detail. There is such a pleasure in seeing new things, making unusual connections, and swimming in art that tells a story. And we all love the feeling of discovering a new artist with a style we have never seen before.


Here is the part of the criteria I think the committee will address with this one:

  1. “Distinguished” is defined as:
    1. Marked by eminence and distinction; noted for significant achievement.
    2. Marked by excellence in quality.
    3. Marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence.
    4. Individually distinct.

Check, check, check, and, especially on d, check. Since we are talking about many wordless books this week/last week, it goes without saying that these illustrations tell the whole story AND reward close reading. I have read it at least four times and I notice new visual connections each time I reread.

I know there are a lot of Journey fans out there–what do you love about this magical tale?



Robin Smith About Robin Smith

Robin Smith is a second-grade teacher at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a reviewer for Kirkus and The Horn Book Magazine and has served on multiple award committees.



  1. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    Difficult not to gush over this one. It is, as Robin notes, just gorgeous, and the story is both absolutely easy to follow and highly complex. It also allows for lots of intriguing, open-ended questions about the beautiful walled city’s society, say, and why the steampunk airship so desperately needs the purple bird (the golden shrine atop the airship is clearly built to hold it).

    I also appreciate the open-endedness of the foreshadowing: the girl’s room is decorated with images of travel: a world map on the wall, space stickers on her dresser, a model hot-air balloon hanging over her bed, etc, and yet her adventures are not slavishly tied to those images. She’s clearly susceptible to travel and adventure, but what happens in the book is not limited to her own imagination; and so to me her adventure feels more REAL.

    This is one of my favorite books so far — although, since practically every time I pick up a picture book this year it becomes my new favorite, I’m not sure how valid that statement is! It must be challenging for the actual committee to choose among so many stellar and diverse offerings (duh!).

  2. You covered it so well here, Robin. I also love the foreshadowing Martha talks about and how those pages (and, well, all the rest of the book) invite readers to examine everything so closely. It’s an experience to read the book. Time slows down a bit, while we pore over details. And the first time I read it to my own children, they loved spotting the images on the girl’s wall and how they come into play later in the story.

    I can only imagine (though, of course I could be way off and am not a mind-reader) that the committee is giving it serious consideration or that it’s at least giving other books a run for the money, as they say. (Oh, to be a fly on the wall, huh?)

  3. Sam Bloom says:

    Agree with everything said here, but did no one catch the weird glitch on the page where the girl is on the waterway going through the city. There are some bizarre things going on with the walls on either side of the little waterways and/or the little water pathways taking little stair-steps that defy the laws of physics. I wish I could explain it better but I don’t have the book in front of me. I do remember that the girl is floating right up to a little wall of water… as I was reading to myself I wondered, was she just going to get sucked up the waterfall like in Voyage of the Dawn Treader? Anyway, perhaps I’m the only one who noticed the strange water level issues?

    Also, I kind of hate the way the “bad guys” were vaguely foreign-looking, bronze-skinned dudes in twirly clothes… to draw another Narnia parallel, they reminded me of the Calormen. Okay, I’ll stop. In all honesty, I love this book. But I think it definitely has issues.

  4. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    Hi Sam! I do have the book here in front of me and although I can’t speak to the physics of the waterways in the walled city, there is no picture of the girl floating up to a wall of water (that I can find). There is of course the picture of the girl about to go over the waterfall, but I’m guessing that’s not what you were referring to.

    As for the “bad guys” and their foreignness and skin color … Yes, they are wearing steampunky clothes, but I’m not sure I’d call them “twirly,” and for the most part their skin color seems on par with the girl’s. I see one picture where the two soldiers are shown as marginally darker than the girl, but the difference is really minimal, and on the next page the baddies’ faces seem as light as if not lighter than the girl’s.

    But clearly something about the book has made you uncomfortable. Maybe revisit later, with book in hand?

  5. Sam Bloom says:

    Yes, good idea, Martha! Just ordered a copy and will respond (or print a retraction) in kind once I’ve taken a look. And sorry I went off… I *promise*, this is a book I like a lot! More later…

  6. Eric Carpenter says:

    the waterways in the city seem to include a system of locks which would allow the boat to rise step by step through the city. Looking at the double page spread of the city we see the girls boat having just risen in the lock and a city dweller’s boat waiting at the intersection for the water in the lock to be lowered so they can proceed into the lock and move up to the next level of the elevated canal.

    As to the bad guys, I had a few pairs of first graders “read” JOURNEY to me today in class. Each set of pairs mentioned one or more of the following racially charged words: asian, chinese, japanese when they first encountered the “bad guys”. I cringed; they simply continued to explain what they saw in the pictures. I don’t think it has anything to do with skin tone, but clothing, armor, head wear, and even the pagoda style room (topped with a dragon) where the bird cage is placed do seem to connote east asia.

    Concerns about this one aspect aside, there is so much brilliance in JOURNEY.
    -Favorite end papers of the year (love the inclusion of the lunar lander)
    -Love the modes of transport in the girls bed room.
    -Love that the jet plane in the window moves from the top left pane to the top right pane in the next page.
    -Especially love the way the triptych over white space reoccurs throughout and how Becker uses this triptych technique to draw the balloon as the girl is falling though space. (three girls but only one circle…so so smart)

    Any chance the committee only awards wordless books this year?

  7. Sam Bloom says:

    Eric, you just blew my mind completely. How did I not know about the existence of locks?! I spent about 20 minutes that I should have been working reading up on locks. I seriously can’t believe it!

  8. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    I have been thinking about these comments for the past few days. I sat down with a copy and tried to put on “new eyes” and read it. I really just see the “bad guys” as bad guys. I don’t see anything besides their unusual clothing–just some sort of military uniform from Somewhere Else. This book definitely grows on me with each reading.

  9. I do not have my copy with me, but the city and the water ways reminded me of M.C. Escher. Look at “Ascending and Descending”, and “Waterfall”. The book as a whole reminded me of David Wiesner’s Free Fall, a wordless Caldecott honor book about a dream journey. I liked that in Journey, the girl was actively creating her adventure.

  10. Okay, full retraction time…

    I was waiting on this book to get to me for about a week, and then randomly this morning I found a copy peeking out from my own branch’s shelves. So I took a look, and noticed that all the characters have the samish skin tone on every page! And though the leader of the meanies has a fancy long moustache, I can see it was a case of extreme over-sensitivity to imply anything. So Aaron Becker, if you’re out there and actually read this thread, I apologize for that.

    And I’m still blown away by the lock epiphany Eric helped me out with. Wow. I have a new dream in life: to go on a boat ride and, at some point during said ride, get raised up by a lock. So, so awesome. Okay, so I’m officially on board with this title now – hard to find anything wrong with it, I must say!

  11. There is one 2013 release that in my view narrowly eclipses JOURNEY. It is THE MATCHBOX DIARY, and it’s absolutely gorgeous in every sense.

  12. Another *late* comment–I love, love, love, love this book. It’s been one of my favorite reads with my kids, too, because I enjoyed how into the story they got. This is such a fantastic book for encouraging visual literacy and asking questions about what’s going to happen next–because it’s all in the details. We spent some time comparing the spreads at the beginning (noting how alone the girl is and how static on those steps while other kids are playing–and that the boy from the end is featured right there although it’s easy to miss him) with the one at the end when the girl and boy are together on the bike (movement, friendship, etc.). Just one teensy, weensy example!

  13. Thanks, Betsy, for reminding me all the things I appreciate about this book–it’s all in the many, many details!

  14. Rebecca Smith says:

    I fell in love with this book as soon as I set eyes on it at Candlewick’s Spring 2013 preview–had to take it off the display and look through it immediately. The book did not disappoint. It’s absolutely wonderful.

    A fan of Harold and his crayon for more than half a century

  15. The more I look at JOURNEY the more I believe it will win the Caldecott Medal on January 27th. If so who could complain? It’s an absolute masterpiece and it’s creator is one of the nicest and most humble guys out there.

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