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Giant Squid

fleming_giant squidDo you like creepy, shiver-inducing monster stories? If so, you’ve got to see Giant Squid by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Eric Rohmann.

Sometimes when we discuss an information book — yes, it’s nonfiction — here, there are debates about whether it’s really a picture book. Is there enough play between art and text? Is there some kind of plot or through-line that lends drama to page-turns? I don’t think there will be any question with this book.

Fleming delivers her information in bits and pieces, asking questions and answering as many as possible. The thing is, there’s a lot scientists don’t know yet. The text is set like poetry and printed in white against dark, deep-ocean backgrounds. In several places, her short lines are indented sequentially to form a diagonal or curve, becoming a strong part of the overall visual effect.

Bone DogWhen I first looked at this book, I didn’t recognize the art as Rohmann’s because I’ve gotten used to his thick-line cartoon style with watercolor fill, as in My Friend Rabbit and Bone Dog. But of course he got his start using the lush, realistic style in this book. Remember Time Flies and his covers for Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series? This is, of course, something the committee is not allowed to discuss because it involves books from a different year, but my guess is they will all be thinking it as they prepare for Midwinter.

Rohmann has told interviewers that he likes dinosaurs and other big monsters, so this subject matter is perfect for him. Giant squid are notoriously elusive, and both text and art play up this quality. (Until 2004 no one had photographed one in its natural habitat, and the first video appeared just four years ago. Scientists knew they existed because of massive body parts washed up on shore. No question about it: here there be monsters!)

The text starts right after the endpapers, before we even get to the title page (something we’ve been seeing more and more lately), describing body parts, asking questions, and allowing suspense to build. The art is dark, showing a small bouquet of arms (just the ends at first), then a little more until the second full spread ends mid-sentence: “…Beasts we call…” Turn to the title page where darkness is suddenly replaced with light. We’re looking up toward the surface on the left, while the book’s title in bold, distressed letters dominates the right: “GIANT SQUID.”

As the book continues, we see more and more of the creature, body part by body part. Rohmann’s placement of each portion of squid moves around on the spread, providing a sense of underwater currents and other unseen forces. First the squid is below us, then above. Where will it show up next? The expert pacing eventually leads to a spread showing nothing but squid ink, with no text at all. On the next spread the center portion of the squid emerges through the murky darkness, then a double gatefold reveals nearly the entire squid until — page turn — “It’s gone.” The tail end disappears down to the lower right of the spread. The End (except for some fascinating backmatter).

I make a point of avoiding horror movies, being a little too susceptible to unwelcome surprises. This book, though, has me reconsidering my policy. When horror and suspense are done as well as this, I’m on board — as long as I am safe in my reading chair.

 

Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the creative director for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogs for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.

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Comments

  1. I love this book, and hold high hopes for it. When I’ve read it to third and fourth grade classrooms and note out loud that, except for the baby squid, we never see the entire giant squid, hands go up all over the room with possible reasons why the illustrator made that choice (among popular suggestions: to showcase the specific part the text is talking about, to highlight the enormousness as if it can’t even fit on the page, and to support the theme of the squid being mysterious.) It’s a great conversation starter, and a great way to get kids thinking about how everything that happens in an illustration is a deliberate choice by the illustrator.

    I love reading this aloud in a very dramatic voice. When we go from those first dark pages, and then turn to the title page with the sudden bright watery sunlight, there is always a chorus of “wow!”

    I’ve seen a lot of people talk about how much they like the fold-out, but that’s actually my one criticism. I felt that it slowed down my momentum in the book to have to stop and unfold it. I want to get to that “It’s gone!” That might be influenced by the fact that I’m usually reading the book to a large group, and manipulating the foldout while holding the book to be seen can be physically awkward, though, and thus not an issue for an individual reader.

  2. Allison Grover Khoury says:

    I’m so glad we are talking about this book. I love it. And, can I just say as an aside, that Bone Dog is one of my favorite Halloween books ever. I read it to the 3rd and 4th graders every year at Halloween and we have numerous readings at home the whole month of October. I was thrilled to see more evidence of Eric Rohmann’s skill and brilliance as an artist and illustrator. The minute I brought Giant Squid into the first of three 3rd grade classrooms, the kids were riveted. They kept the book for 2 weeks and when I finally read it to them today, more than half the class had read it to themselves several times. They loved it out loud and there was lots of discussion of the squid, the light and dark, the lush colors of the water and the dark red on the squid, and they were wowed by the double open spread. I have the opposite feeling and experience to Alys (who commented above) about the double spread. I enjoyed stopping to open the pages out with the book propped up on my lap so the kids could take it in. Excellent pairing of writer and illustrator. The text is so fun to read out loud, and there isn’t a single page where the text and illustration aren’t right. I have high hopes for this book.

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