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Are We There Yet?

are-we-there-yetThere’s nothing like the words “by Caldecott Medalist…” on a book’s cover to generate award buzz. With Are We There Yet?, Dan Santat’s first authored picture book since The Adventures of Beekle, there’s a lot to examine.

The front endpapers show a car advancing — frame by frame — down a highway. Its destination is revealed on the next page, when a boy in the back seat asks his parents the titular question. He is holding an invitation to his grandma’s birthday party (an enlarged version of the invite, seen from his perspective, appears above the copyright information on the verso page). Toys can only entertain for so long — this kid is bored. “But what happens when your brain becomes TOO bored?” The words from this sentence are spliced along a path which curves around the physical book, prompting readers to turn it upside-down; the pages then move right to left as the characters travel backwards in time (the parents’ outfits and expressions changing along the way, and the boy’s plush monkey coming to life). The boy is not interested in what is happening around him until the “ROOAAAR” of a T-Rex grabs his attention and he throws a ball for the dinosaur to fetch. Things start to turn back around (both figuratively and literally) as the characters move forward in time and the book returns to its original position and left-to-right reading structure. When the family arrives at Grandma’s house, flying cars and glowing lights reveal that they’ve gone too far into the future. A robot, whose language is communicated in QR codes, snaps a photograph and hands it to the boy before he settles back into the car, the images darkening panel by panel as he slinks into sleep. He wakes with a jolt outside of the party, the monkey unmoving and the reader assuming the adventure was all a dream. As the child hugs his grandmother and presents her with her gift (later revealed to be a clock), the robot’s photograph flies out of the car and into the foreground.

Santat’s illustrations (created using pencil, crayon, watercolor, ink, and Photoshop) match the sentimental yet accessible tone of the story. A mix of panels and double-page spreads creates an engaging pace (for example, pausing action during the thrilling encounter with the T-Rex). The theme of savoring each moment and the pun of the present are represented loud and clear. On the back endpapers, the night sky darkens over Grandma’s home, which stays put as time progresses (unlike the moving car in the beginning). The round-cornered panels atop black backgrounds evoke vintage photographs, capturing moments frozen in time. Beneath the dust jacket, the cover resembles Grandma’s wrapped present — the boy’s gift to her. The final jest (the boy asking, “Can we go now?”) contrasts wittily with “there’s no gift like the present” on the preceding page and the image of Grandma unwrapping her clock.

Is the well-defined message accessible and engaging for child audiences, who will ooh and ahh as they put the pieces of the visual and textual puzzle together? Does it do too much work for readers? (Is that even a thing?) Is the placement of the party invitation above the copyright information a beneficial location, or does it clutter the communication? The turn-around book format is engaging as heck, but is it gimmicky? If so, does it matter? And then there is the question of the QR codes and whether or not they make the book “dependent on other media.” While scanning them reveals translated robot dialogue, the codes can stand alone as visual representations of a robot language. (In my mind, I hear boop-beep-boops; a colleague shared that he imagines static fuzz or modem dial-up sounds. Ask kids what they think!) Translation or not, the robot is essential to the story, because without its photo there isn’t the surprise twist at the end.

There’s a lot going on here, and each reread reveals something new. Complex isn’t always good — but it isn’t always bad either. It’s a sweet story, which raises some of the same questions for me that Robin asked of Beekle in 2014 — and we know that turned out okay! There’s no doubt that the intergenerational story, tender message, and under-the-jacket appearance of a present with a ribbon on top screams “HOLIDAY GIFT BOOK!” Do you think it also screams “CALDECOTT!”?

 

About Elisa Gall

Elisa Gall is the Youth Collection Development Librarian at the Deerfield Public Library in Illinois.

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Comments

  1. Susan M. Dailey says:

    Great review,Elisa! There certainly is a lot to see. I didn’t notice the parents the first time through. I really like the endpapers. I hope kids and parents take the time to look at them as they extend the story. Until I started looking critically at the illustrations in books, I never noticed endpapers. I don’t remember ever showing them to my kids when they were young. They are in their 30s now. Were there interesting endpapers in the 80s & 90s?

  2. Allison Grover Khoury says:

    This is a really good review. At first, though I admire the art and the humor (which felt maybe a tad more adult than kid-like), the book didn’t do much for me. Beekle is a wonderful book and I admire Mr. Santat’s work so much. I saw him speak and draw for children at the LA Times Festival of Books a couple of years ago – he was charming and funny and everyone at the event was smitten.
    But after reading Are We There Yet? to one of my 1st grade classes and 2 of the 3rd grade classes as part of my Caldecott Reading Program, I’m appreciating it more. I grows on me with each read. It is really fun to read aloud, turning the book around and around. The children all love the details and we have had long discussions about all the characters and complex moves through time, chasing the car through the front end-papers and watching the house in the back end-papers. This is a good book.

  3. Elisa Gall says:

    Thanks, Susan. The first endpapers that come to mind are Rathmann’s safety-tip filled ones in Officer Buckle and Gloria (’96 Medal). If memory serves me right, there are collage endpapers in Smoky Night (’95 Medal) and special scenes featured on the endpapers of Zelinsky’s Rapunzel (’98 Medal) too. Now I’m intrigued though and will hunt down some of the 80s and 90s winners to see what I’m forgetting!

    Allison, I know what you mean about the extra “wow” factor when reading this book with kids. Children have pointed out elements and appreciations that I didn’t notice right away and I am grateful for the opportunity to explore this title with them.

  4. Angela Reynolds says:

    Elisa, you have covered most of the things I appreciate about this book — I also like the use of colour and how it sets the tone — for instance the yellow skies out the car window are the same as the Western sky the train takes us through, the blue-green of the ocean sky for the pirate ship scene, muted colurs in the Medieval world, and hot yellow desert for the Egyptian scene… it all fits. The colour sets the mood and helps the reader feel they are in the scene. This varied palette also lets us know we’ve jumped again in time. And as far as the turning of the book as gimmicky — in the hands of a less skilled bookmaker, it might be. But there’s a reason for it: it physically takes us back in time, takes us backwards, and makes the reader physically feel the disorientation. So, I say it is not a gimmick, but if it is, it is a darn good one. I’ve shared it with kids and they love it, my co-worker’s children (ages 7 & 5) love all the detail and layers. And it has appeal to so many ages– adults will get humour that young children won’t, which is a clever way of keeping parents interested when they have to read it over and over. The QR codes don’t need to work to be effective, but they do work, and that’s one more layer. The end pages and case cover just wrap it all up into one nice present. Can you tell I like this one?

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