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They Say Blue

Have you noticed? This is a powerhouse year for the Caldecott. We are seeing so many spectacular books worthy of Caldecott recognition — and many are illustrated by women. Jillian Tamaki’s They Say Blue is one of those extraordinary picture books.

Although we know Tamaki’s work from of the Caldecott Honor-winning graphic novel This One Summer, They Say Blue is her first picture book for young children. And it is indeed spectacular. It’s such a visually striking and gloriously colored book, so full of movement, depth of emotion, and just plain breathtaking beauty. It’s about the concept of color, but it’s also about the nature of childhood in the way it A) really gets and B) so profoundly expresses how a child experiences the world. The book is specific to this one child’s perceptions and experiences but universal in that those perceptions and experiences can be applied to everychild.

The words in this picture book are important, because as the pictures show the girl interacting with her world, the text allows readers to get inside the protagonist’s head. And that’s important because the child is examining the world by turning over objects and ideas in her hands (water, an egg) and in her head. But the text, though strong, is usually secondary to the illustrations here. This is virtuoso visual storytelling — and remember that one of the Caldecott definitions says that “a picture book for children is one that essentially provides the child with a visual experience.” You don’t need to read the text on the spread where the first rains of winter arrive and we see the girl trudging down a road, all hunched over, her hoodie pulled up over her head and her backpack dragging behind her. Her body language says it all. You don’t need to read the text on the spread where, winter now over, “it’s warm at last,” and the girl sheds her many layers of winter clothes and in a stunning sequence dances toward the next spread, ready for the joys of spring and summer. You can feel her relief and delight and need. Heck, you can even feel the sun on her face.

Tamaki’s exploration of the concept of color unifies the book, of course, but it’s also unified by the girl herself. We know this child so well by the end of the book — her curiousness about the world around her; how present she is in her surroundings; her active and strong imagination; her changing moods.

Tamaki’s sequences here are some of the most notable elements in the book — no surprise given her expertise as a comics artist. The girl is frequently shown multiple times across a spread. Perhaps the most striking sequence is the one that happens over two double-page spreads in which the girl casts off her winter clothes and then, stretching upward toward the sun, becomes a tree. I love the childlike quality of the whole thing: her body language, her haste and eagerness, and the idea of stretching up to the sky so intensely that you turn into a tree. I also love how Tamaki has prepared viewers for that tour de force sequence by seeding earlier examples. We’ve earlier in the book seen the girl swimming through the water, wondering if blue whales are actually blue; and in an earlier spread, we see the girl checking to see if water is blue (it’s not; when she cups water in her hands, “it’s clear as glass”) and tossing it up in the air “to make diamonds.” The fingers of water that are tossed up into the air will be echoed in the girl’s fingers that turn into branches on that later amazing tree-sequence spread.

The trajectory of the book is nontraditional — there’s no actual plot to speak of beyond the girl’s exploration of the world — but there is a trajectory. Several, in fact. There is discernible progression; definite arcs and through-lines to follow. For one thing, the palette of the art (acrylic paint on watercolor paper + Photoshop) flows from cool (blue) to warm (yellows and reds and oranges) back to cool (gray and blue and purple) and again to warm, depending on the season or scene or mood portrayed. Another super important arc is that the child moves through the world (and the book) as an independent agent — experiencing so many external stimuli; doing so much internal processing. She’s moving forward all the time, on her own, and so it’s such a palpable comfort and sense of rightness-with-the-world that in the end she’s at rest and at home, and being so lovingly cared for by her mother. As a reader of this book I can feel the mother’s hand on my own forehead; feel the love in the braiding of the girl’s hair. “Black is the color of my hair. My mother parts it every morning, like opening a window.” The play of colors here is extraordinary, as the dark blues and black on the left side of the spread give way to the bright yellow of the day on the right side of the spread. The art is stunning (yes, I’ve used that word a lot!); but I’m left with the more intimate sense of the relationship between mother and daughter, as the mother braids the girl’s hair and the pair look out the window together at the sunrise. We end the book with a sense of comfort and renewal, with the girl’s spirit being fed so that she can venture out into the world once again.

They Say Blue is not an especially large book (its trim size is approx. 10″ x 10″), but it feels large and expansive because of the full-bleed spreads and the saturation of the color. And yet, to me it also feels small because of the intimacy of the portrait of the narrator/protagonist. Even though we see a lot of the world in the book, and the views are expansive — sea, sky, fields of waving golden grass — we are always and firmly inside the thoughts of the narrator, and, however expansive, we experience the world through her. So it’s a quiet and internal and intimate book, too; it’s an immersion into a world and a child’s persona. And please keep in mind that the presence of a “plot” is not a Caldecott criterion. The Caldecott definition says only that “a picture book has a collective unity of story-line, theme, or concept, developed through the series of pictures of which the book is comprised.” In They Say Blue the theme and concept have been developed superbly, and with a child’s sensibilities always in mind.

So much more to say, but these are some of my thoughts on They Say Blue. Now, what say you?

[You can read the Horn Book Magazine review of They Say Blue here.]

 

 

Martha V. Parravano About Martha V. Parravano

Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.

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  1. “It’s such a visually striking and gloriously colored book, so full of movement, depth of emotion, and just plain breathtaking beauty.”

    Oh I totally agree, and have concluded this magnificent picture book is one of the very best of the year, a contention underlined by the Boston-Horn Book win. And I also concur with your entry point position that 2018 was/is a spectacular year for picture books and Caldecottt contenders in this Golden Age of picture books (an assertion you made Martha two years ago in response to this staggering artistic resurgence). So how does one decide between this Tamaki masterpiece and several others that are roughly equal to it, but safe to say none surpass it? A thankless task to be sure, but in this sensational review, one that examines this book comprehensively you have once and for all time settled the point on theme and concept trumping plot (sorry to use that dreadful word) in this “intimate” and soulful work of astonishing physical beauty. Blue has been a popular subject over the past few years, with Laura Vaccaro Seeger, Peter Sis, Isabelle Simler and Mordecai Gerstein among others acutely exploring the thematic and possibilities, though of course Tamaki’s mastery of weather pays equally striking visitation on the color spectrum. Yes, Ms. Tamaki won an unexpected Caldecott Honor for her superlative drawings in THIS ONE SUMMER, but as you subsequently note this is her first picture book as such she really has raised the bar both for herself and for concept books.

    I just don’t know how to respond to the paragraph starting with this observation:

    “The trajectory of the book is nontraditional — there’s no actual plot to speak of beyond the girl’s exploration of the world — but there is a trajectory. Several, in fact. There is discernible progression; definite arcs and through-lines to follow…” Just brilliant.

    There is a subtle metaphysical allure to this book, one that keeps you thinking long after you close it, yet the astonishing beauty will not allow for a prolonged hiatus. The airy end papers are part of this scheme, methinks. The cover? Well, I’d say it is surely one of the two or three most distinguished of the year in that department. Love your delineation of “size” as it defines my own personal experience with the book. It feels and it looks so much bigger than it is, yet when stacked with all the others it sits modestly. And yes I totally agree the book is about the girl’s experience with the world around her, a vital point about what this book is really about.

    Thank you Martha for this astounding work of scholarship , as great a children’s book review or qualification essay I’ve ever read anywhere. That I personally adore this resplendent book makes it doubly satisfying. 🙂

  2. The illustrations are beautiful and evocative. I especially appreciated the use and contrasts of warm and cool colors. All of the fourth grade classes I read this to commented on it. Granted, I’m pretty sure they’ve recently learned about this in art class, but still, it was something they all noticed.

    Probably the second most-remarked upon thing when I read this to second, third, and fourth graders was the transition from the “All white….” double page spread to the “Black is the color of my hair.” Several times kids would get confused looks on their faces, or the more vocally reactive would say, “wait, what?” I asked the classes if they thought it was an abrupt transition, and got a lot of really interesting responses. Kids pointed out that the shadow of the tree anticipates the look of the girl’s hair on the next page. Another student was quick to say that “Oh, I’m so sleepy” makes sense of the transition because the next picture is of a girl sleeping, even if the words “Black is the color of my hair” don’t make a verbal transition. Another student said that we often call snow a “blanket” on the ground, the snow is the same color as the girl’s blanket. I wish now that I had asked them what the book was about. I’m not sure that the theme of color was as obvious to some of the kids as it was to me.

    Having read the book 15 times in one day, I have to share that I had a personal annoyance that I felt the girl’s hair opens like a curtain, not like a window. I know this a petty complaint, but I had to get it off my chest.

    In the category of non-petty complaints, I have a question for someone that has more information than I do. I’m curious what other people think about the girl with forearm crutches on the “And when we play…” page. I’ve never seen forearm crutches that do not have a handle to grip, and a quick google image search only showed me crutches with a grip. To be honest the forearm crutches as shown here don’t look completely functional: it looks like the girl is resting her hand on bare metal at a slight angle. I’d imagine her hands would slip right off if she put any real weight on it. The lefthand crutch also looks like it is at an extreme backwards facing angle that would make it difficult to put weight on. But I’m also the first to admit that I am not a forearm crutch user and might be barking up the wrong tree in my assessment. Does someone with more familiarity with forearm crutches want to weigh in and tell me that my concerns are off-base, or is this an example of trying to be inclusive without putting in the requisite research?

  3. Alys, since you asked I figured I’d chime in with a second comment. My wife is presently recovering from partial knee replacement necessitated by severe arthritis, and she is presently back to work at our school with a cane/crutch. After showing her my copy of the book she feels that the placement of the cuff is too high up on the girl’s arm and there is too much of a bend or curve on the top of the crutch. There is in addition no hand grip. My wife agrees with you that if the girl started to walk she’d lose her balance without grip. Therefore my wife is basically in agreement. Nonetheless, my own position is in favor that its a more illustrative abstract inference since this book is not committed to detail in a scene-specific sense. It is certainly a fair enough assertion, but I would not if I were on the committee hold much weight on it.

    As to the hair, I feel it is pictorially attuned to a curtain more than it is a window, (curtain and window are married too) but since you subsequently downplayed it, I can conclude it is perception. In the end I passionately endorse the glowing observations you made in the first paragraph.

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

    Alys, I too noticed the forearm crutches. I noticed them because the child does not even seem to be using them — not leaning on them, that is. The crutches do seem gratuitously added to the scene in, I assume (always dangerous to do), an effort to add visibility to persons with disabilities — a particularly invisible community in children’s books.

    You may recall that in our Calling Caldecott coverage of “Last Call on Market Street” I mentioned the portrayal of the blind man on the bus who, unaccountably, had both a guide dog and a white cane. In our coverage of “The Airport Book” I made the same comment about the same situation. I have a personal connection to a blind person, so I felt comfortable pointing out the unlikeliness that a blind person would use both a guide dog and a cane a the same time. I don’t have the same familiarity with the use of forearm crutches — so I was less comfortable questioning the portrayal here. But if it is indeed inaccurate, I think it’s important to note it and learn from it and MOVE FORWARD. It’s laudable that illustrators are beginning to include persons with disabilities in their books. But as in the past when books started including, say, Black characters by simply coloring in their faces (!!!), I feel like we’re in a sort of pre-expert, pre-research phase, where just the idea of inclusion is enough. Which of course it isn’t.

    Thank you, Alys, for bringing up the issue, and Sam, for your corroboration..

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