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Drawn Together

I was instantly intrigued when illustrator Dan Santat described on social media how he developed the display type for Drawn Together, writing, “It originates from the original Thai alphabet. Then I integrated Western alphabet components into the design to show a melding of cultures. Lastly, for design reasons, I modified certain characters for legibility.” This typographic, cultural melding is a first indication of Santat’s achievement of “excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept” as it offers an immediate, visual representation of the connection forged by the story’s English-speaking boy and his Thai-speaking grandfather when they transcend language barriers through collaborative art-making. The lettering’s striking appearance on the jacket also arrests attention on Lê’s title itself, prompting consideration of its dual meanings: the characters draw together and in doing so are emotionally drawn together. Clever, right? But this picture book’s brilliance resides in how its interdependent verbal and visual layers of meaning can draw readers together, too. Of course, many picture books do this; but Lê and Santat’s overt theme of connection through art-making underscores how their collaboration invites readers to connect with each other through art meaning-making.

In the book proper, the restraint of Lê’s spare writing surpasses the cleverness evidenced by the title to allow Santat’s full creative powers to engage with the story. In fact, the first spread is a text-free depiction of the boy entering his grandfather’s home (after his mother drops him off, dejected, on front-matter pages). The next page is also textless as it provides a close, aerial view of grandson and grandfather sitting down to foods signifying their cultural differences. Text finally arrives in speech balloons delivered on mid-page, meaningfully bifurcated panels on the recto; but since the boy’s dialog on the right is in English, and the grandfather’s on the left is in Thai, their utterances fail to connect them. And, the next spread continues their language barrier: the boy sits, bored, before a Thai-language TV show, and then the grandfather’s grave face registers concern after a second Thai/English non-exchange.

The subsequent wordless spread, still paneled, reveals changes in the grandfather’s countenance as he observes the boy drawing a self-portrait as a wizard. He’s curious, then delighted. When text returns on the next spread, it’s first-person, retrospective narration, not dialog: “Right when I gave up talking,” it reads, “my grandfather surprised me by revealing a world beyond words.” Here, the boy’s curiosity dominates the panels as he looks, wide-eyed, at the black sketchbook his grandfather sets beside an inkpot and brushes. The bottom of the spread is now panel-free, with a thick, black line (ostensibly made by the grandfather) leading from the verso, across the gutter, and to the brush breaking the recto’s lower corner. This moment showcases Santat’s achievement in “delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood [and] information through the pictures;” for just like Sendak’s scene when “the walls be[come] the world all around,” the use of the white of the page as a domain unto itself indicates narrative movement into a new, fantastic realm.

Furthermore, the graphic detail of the grandfather’s inky brushstroke acts as a visual page-turner. And, the payoff? It’s terrific. Panels disappear as text reads, “we see each other for the first time.” A double-page spread juxtaposition of characters and techniques confirms Santat’s “excellence of execution in the artistic technique employed.” The colorful boy-wizard dominates the verso, wielding a star-tipped wand as he strikes a dynamic pose, while on the recto, a finely detailed line drawing shows a self-portrait of grandfather-as-warrior in Thai ceremonial garb, brandishing a brush as large as himself. Although positioned on facing pages, they gaze toward each other, and the grandfather-warrior’s brush sweeps another thick, black, inky line across the verso, under his grandson, and into the gutter, connecting them.

Ensuing pages meld the pair’s distinct styles, with the boy’s colorful, marker palette depicting a monkey and rounded rock-like forms, while the grandfather’s finely detailed line-work portrays swirling waves and a fish that’s dragon-like in its massive, scaly ferocity. Then, a dragon rendered in both techniques arrives as a visual metaphor for “that old distance” that “comes ROARING BACK” to again separate them. Santat’s return to panels on the next verso underscores renewed alienation; but, a full-bleed illustration on the facing recto shows the boy raising the warrior-grandfather’s brush against the dragon, heralding newfound determination and confidence. “This time I’m not afraid,” reads Lê’s text. Collaborative art-making has enabled grandson and grandfather to “make their way across” language and cultural barriers, slaying the dragon of distance. The transformative power of this “SPEECHLESS” connection emerges at book’s end when the boy takes his grandfather’s brush, and the grandfather, the boy’s marker. The implication is that although they’ve connected through their own, distinct ways, they’ve drawn each other into new growth, too.

The result of this brilliant melding of alphabets, words, pictures, and design is both a gorgeous evocation of the characters’ specific, evolving connection through art-making, and an invitation for readers to connect with each other through the art of the book—perhaps especially though inquiry provoked by the ambiguous modality of the scenes at the heart of the story.

What’s really happening in this “world beyond words”?

Is it real? Are those spreads with the fish, the monkey, and the dragon the pictures the pair have “drawn together”?

Did they really make those pictures? Did the author really do this with his grandfather? The illustrator with his?

Or, is it pretend? In other words, do these pictures comprise an imaginary scenario dreamed up by the narrator boy in which he and his grandfather act out a metaphorical negotiation of their relationship?

Or, is this a fantastical world that they, as wizard and warrior, occupy in the story to negotiate the same?

That this book can inspire such inquiry reveals its laser-sharp focus “in recognition of a child audience” as it embraces the common childhood preoccupation with the blurry lines drawn between real and pretend, imagined and experienced, perceived and felt. Then, remove the jacket and discover a paratextual, metafictive twist that will leave readers engaged with such analysis momentarily “speechless” when they see that the case cover looks just like the grandfather’s black sketchbook.

“It is real!” said my three-year-old when I read this book with him. “This is the grandpa’s drawing book!”

Just as Lê’s text leaves room for Santat’s art to extend the story visually, the iconotext (or, the merging of the visual and the verbal) gives readers space to grapple with the potential meaning(s) of the climactic scenes of the story and their relationship to the book as a whole. And it’s through that grappling that great picture books like this one hold not just stories and art, but memories of readings and the insights, discoveries, and connections they provoke. Whether or not this brilliant picture book about nurturing and sustaining familial bonds through art wins 2019 Caldecott recognition, I’m certain it will draw readers together for years to come.

 

Megan Dowd Lambert About Megan Dowd Lambert

Megan Dowd Lambert is an instructor at Simmons College’s Center for the Study of Children’s Literature. For nearly ten years she also worked in the education department of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.

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  1. Fabulous review for a picture book par excellence, one I also count as one of the premiere achievements of 2018. After the cultural and communicative impasse is established in a splendid series of vignettes, there is a flash when the two players see each other, transcribing their own personas into characters devised from their own time in a wildly imaginative scenario that weds L. Frank Baum with Akira Kurosawa through the artistic prism of Chuck Jones’ “Duck Amuck.” To the boy’s modern interpretation of a wizard the traditionalist answers with a pencil drawn figure of a Thai warrior who appears as tenacious as his empowered contemporary counterpart. The contrast is heightened by Santat who employs two illustrative styles to embolden the contrast between modernism and mythology, a impasse only solved by common understanding which renders time and language as insignificant factors. Le beautifully ushers in this artistic proposition with ten words that Santat transcribes in colorful word bubbles – All the things we could never say come pouring out, as past meets present stylistically and thematically. The power of the imagination …and we build a new world that even words can’t describe is manifested in a scene of operatic grandeur that inspired this reader to hear strains of Calaf’s “Nessun Dorma” or “Un Questa Reggia” while eyeing our two intrepid protagonists standing in a stage enclosure in a theater-in-the-round configuration. Santat’s phantasmagorical canvas is a triumph of visual imagination.

    The basic theme of the book (which you have stated superbly in a number of ways) is that the deepest of bonds isn’t forged by language but by a shared passion, simultaneously intimate and epic, physical and meditative, vigorous and exultant. It may be a cliche to call any book “a celebration of art” but in DRAWN TOGETHER the form sparks the most profound human connection, which is the most meaningful result of all. The final wordless panels paint a picture of unbridled ebullience intimating in no uncertain terms that in this altered relationship the sky is the limit for creative immersion. The boy’s mom returns with all-knowing glee, and is embraced. The reformed youngster glowingly hold his grandfather’s brush while grandfather holds the red marker up to the sky as he sees his family off. Some of Santat’s most spectacular tapestries involve superimposing the monochrome pencil drawings on a fevered color vision. When Jason and his Argonauts descended upon Colchis, they were greeted by the fearful Hydra who stood between the brave adventurers and the coveted Golden Fleece. Le and Santat’s Far Eastern variation is a Guardian fiercely protecting the creation of only one half of this transcendental blueprint, and “that old distance” envisioned as a moat-like barrier where a dragon holds vicissitude at bay. The grandfather’s alter ego strikes first clutching the boy’s magic wand, an act that inspires the boy to follow suit by securing the paint brush – Because I know that together…we can make our way across. Artistic negation recalling what befell the dinosaur in Bill Thompson’s Chalk but perhaps most spectacularly in David Wisnieski’s 1997 Caldecott Medal winning Golem, where a giant clay made protector is finally sent back to where he came by his creator Rabbi Judah Loew Ben Bezalel.

    A “yes” answer to all the questions you pose can be ably defended, but they all serve as proof parcel this is a multi-dimensional work, as pictorially and narratively complex as any book released this year. Bravo on this stupendous qualification essay/review!

  2. I absolutely loved this book. It was the one I chose to be the first I read for my weekly Mock Caldecott classroom visits because I knew that it would immediately generate some great discussion, even for kids that weren’t yet used to analyzing the way pictures interact with text or make meaning in the context of a picture book.

    All of the classrooms (grades 2-4) that I read it with were hugely impressed with the range of artistic style. I even had some kids arguing with me that there was no way that the same artist had drawn the setting illustrations, the boy’s pictures, and the grandfather’s pictures, since the boy’s pictures and the grandfather’s pictures were just too dissimilar.

    Every classroom picked up right away on the symbolism behind the two styles merging together. I particularly liked that the first side-by-side art of the two styles basically has a “boy page” and a “grandpa page”, the next double page spread doesn’t separate so neatly, but the upper half and lower half of the spread are still fairly segregated, and then the next page there’s no dividing line at all, showing the emergence of the connection between grandfather and boy.

    We always examine the book parts before we read it properly, looking at the dust jacket, comparing it to the actual cover, and looking at the endpapers. The students were so excited when the grandfather first took out the sketchbook, because they recognized it from the cover and knew it would be important. When we first saw the grandfather’s drawing, hands would go up all over the room to point out that “that’s why the back endpapers are all black and white and detailed!” Little details, perhaps, but attention to detail and making every single part of the book work together adds up to something greater than the sum of the parts.

    If I had one tiny complaint, it’s that thematically it’s odd that the dragon that drives them apart and represents their distance from one another is a mix of both of the their styles – exactly what had been bringing them together up until that point. I’m not sure how else it could have been done though – if it was colorful or not colorful it would place blame on one party or the other. Perhaps a dragon that was split perfectly down the middle with one style on each side?

  3. Susan Dailey says:

    Megan, you point out so many wonderful qualities of this book that there is little else to say. However, I want to add one comment. In books I really like, there is usually one illustration that I find particularly strong/striking/memorable. For “Drawn Together” it’s the spread with the boy as wizard on one side and the grandfather as warrior on the other. The composition of the spread feels so balanced to me. Then there’s the striking difference in style and the use of white space. Also, the boy’s left leg & foot looks like a paint brush. Did anyone else think that?

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