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This Is Not a Picture Book!

this-is-not-a-picture-bookWords and pictures. Pictures and words. What makes a book a book, at least in the mind of a young child? Ask any little kid and they will not hesitate to tell you that it’s the pictures. Anyone who has read this blog for more than a year knows that I agree with my young students and that I love the pictures created by Sergio Ruzzier as much as my  students do. But, what will the Committee do? (Or committees, plural, because I think this will be considered by the Geisel and Caldecott committees.)

This book truly starts with the front endpapers. WHAT? Typed words fill both pages and, for once, I hope the reader will not read like a committee member. I hope they will read like kids read, just turn the flippin’ page, and enjoy the story. (Okay, I know…now you want to run and look at both sets of endpages. Try not to. Let the book reveal itself.) Ooh, after the endpages, the story continues with the lone little bird on the left-hand page and a lone little red book on the right. (In book-speak, that would be the verso and the recto. I think. Or is it recto and verso? We don’t have to pretend to be super book people here, but I looked it up. Again. R is for recto. Right hand side.) The red book is closed, just a block of paper. Turn the page and the little bird opens the book, turns its pages and finds that the book has no pictures. “Where are the pictures?” And…ta da…the title page sneaks in! And our little bird is Not Happy. Birdie has a scowl and his (no, I don’t know the gender of the bird, so I will awkwardly pick a pronoun, this time I will make the bird male) claws are barely holding onto the book, as if repulsed by it. As the story continues, the pages becomes busier, divided into halves across the gutter, creating an imaginary horizon line. The book flies across the gutter, kicked by teeny bird feet. Eyes move to the bottom half of the page, where a grumpy bird eyes the open book, and he picks up the tossed book with the apology, “I’m sorry, book.” Up until now, there have been just two characters, the book and the bird. The background has been white, with no borders or boundaries. A teeny bug crawls out of the gutter (a bookbug?) to join the story. The bug asks the obvious question, “Can you read it?” Turn the page and the explosion of color on the recto draws the reader (and the bug and bird) into the story. An orange log makes a welcoming bridge across the gutter to the land of color. That color-filled page is yellow-green and orange, and each page turn to follow is filled with more colors and more objects, mostly objects that are straight from the mind of Ruzzier (much like the illustrations in a Dr. Seuss book come straight from the mind of Seuss). I mean, you just have never seen a world like a Ruzzier world, populated by uniquely Ruzzier creatures.

So, though the book that the bird is reading is only words, the book the reader is reading has lots of pictures! Sound complicated? It’s not. It’s just the way it is. As the bird recognizes simple words, the illustrations are simple: flowers, ground, bee. Each word the bird reads leads to limitless pictures in his mind. The words in the physical book are quite easy to decode (hence my hope that the Geisel Committee looks at it!). “Some are funny!” are the three words on a page bursting with funny items like bubbles, skinny creatures, clowns, and funky fish. “Some are sad” is illustrated by a heartbreaking war scene. Luckily a rowboat is tucked into the far right corner, which allows bird and bug a way out of sad into wild and onto a peaceful scene in a pink sea and then, eventually, back home to bed and house filled with books and more stories. And, ahhhh, that final page turn! The little bug dances, “Read it again!” I think many kids will do just that…and find that they are reading all by themselves.

When the child turns to the final endpapers, she or he is in for a fantastic surprise. Nah, I won’t ruin it for you.

So, will the Caldecott Committee appreciate Ruzzier’s use of white space and color to set the tone? Will they appreciate how the words are reflected in the illustrations but how the illustrations tell more than words alone ever could? Will they put themselves in the child’s chair and simply lose themselves in a magical place, carefully constructed? I dunno. But I do know they should not pass this book by and they should definitely share it with new readers. (Ahem…helloooo Geisel Committee…) No matter what they do, I hope you will take the time to enjoy this sophisticated exploration of the place words hold in a picture book.

In Martha’s discussion of Twenty Yawnsshe talks about how the committee pulls each picture apart, discovering the little things that take away from the book. The further I get from my year on the committee, the more I read like a kid and the less I read like a committee member. It’s just a lot more fun that way. I find myself lost in each spread, feeling the emotions that bird and bug feel, marveling at how sentences made up of just three words can keep my attention for minutes at a time when married to heartfelt illustrations. And, now that I notice it, once bird realizes he knows a few words, Ruzzier creates sentences that start with three words, then grow to four and seven and finally, eighteen, joined by ellipses to make the page turns less scary!

What say you? Will there be someone on the committee who will champion this dandy offering? I sure hope so.


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. I want this book to win just for the endpapers. :-} And, okay, I’m (mostly) joking when I say that, but they really blew my mind. I could write an entire analysis just of the endpapers. I’ve shared this book with fourth graders and had some really interesting conversations about why they think the author made the choices he did with those endpapers, the differences between the front and back, and some of the details from the front papers.

    This is a book that when I first heard it getting buzz I opened the book up to a random page and glanced through the pictures and couldn’t figure out what the fuss was about. It was decent art, well done, but not amazing. I shrugged it off as personal taste. But then when I actually read the whole book, I suddenly understood where the buzz was coming from. We’re doing a Mock Caldecott at the local elementary school for the first time this year, and this book works perfectly as an introduction to a discussion of how the award isn’t just for lovely pictures, but rather for ways in which the pictures interact with, support, and enhance the text. Every single part of this book, from the end papers to the title page, were the result of thoughtful and deliberate choices.

  2. “What say you? Will there be someone on the committee who will champion this dandy offering? I sure hope so.”

    I say the same. It is a beautifully conceived and designed book, and it is the latest in a string of Ruzzier picture book masterworks after “Have You Seen My New Blue Socks?”, “A Letter For Leo” and “Two Mice.” Methinks it has ever right to be broached in that company as as always the renowned author-illustrator brings his innovative creativity to the table with quirky characters and some sumptuous watercolor vistas. Always pushing the envelope his artistic control and humorous underpinning make this a sure return visit for the young ones. I also must concur on the assertion in this great review that space is so deftly utilized and also the contention in the review and above comment that the end papers are fantastic. This may well (finally) be Ruzzier’s year.

  3. This one also rang a Geisel bell for me – the aforementioned simple, direct sentences caught my eye, and it’s even about the challenges (and joys) of decoding text. Could it be the crossover title of this year? I’m very interested to see what child readers do or do not make of those end papers.

  4. Love that double spread when duck discovers the book doesn’t have pictures! Wow, can’t believe how well Ruzzier captures emotion in simple images! Masterful!

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