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Imagine!

Raúl Colón’s wordless Imagine! might be the most joyous picture book of the year.

This inspirational companion to Draw! (2014), Colón’s autobiographical story about a bedridden boy who becomes immersed in the safari drawings he creates, explodes with energy as a young man skateboards through New York City streets, over a bridge, and to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). There he interacts with the figures in three celebrated paintings — Picasso’s Three Musicians, Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy, and Matisse’s Icarus.

Perhaps the most impressive feat of Colón’s work here is how he remains true to the works of Picasso, Rousseau, and Matisse while having their creations serve the needs of his own artistic vision. Colón has a very distinct illustration style, with his intricate use of watercolors, Prismacolor pencils, and lithograph pencils. For those studying picture books on a regular basis, his work is immediately recognizable and, to quote the Caldecott criteria, “individually distinct.”

The book, which shares Draw!s 9″ x 11.5″ dimensions, invites repeat visits and deeper exploration. The wow-factor begins when one removes the dust jacket to discover two drawings: the front cover has the boy skateboarding across a bridge toward MoMa, while the back cover has him returning home. The front endpapers are mostly blank, with only a drawing of a box of colored chalk popping from the yellow background (this chalk will play a very important role late in the story). The title page shows the boy framed inside an oval, reminiscent of those iris shots used in classic silent movies (this suits a wordless book quite well). He has a dreamy look on his face.

As the young man glides across the city, Colón deftly employs graphic novel–style frames to capture his trek. Along the way our hero notices a building’s drab blank wall that sorely needs some color and life (he will return to this spot later). Colón does especially well with his drawings of the cityscape throughout, creating a real sense of place. When the boy arrives at MoMA and checks his helmet and skateboard, he walks to the three paintings that will play a major part in the story. In an effective setup, Colón shows the young man from behind as he marvels at their respective wonders. Just look at his awestruck body language, especially at how he has his hands on his head while experiencing the surreal cubism of Three Musicians. Then he wanders over to Icarus, and the magic begins. Fantasy and reality start blurring. Imagination fuels the next several spreads.

Icarus magically floats out of his frame and joins the boy for a dance. Notice how the blue-green, featureless, abstract Icarus bends and flexes as he dances, sometimes tipping his hat. His little red heart draws the eye. The boy and Icarus inspire the Three Musicians (and their little dog, too) to join in the frolic. The boy radiates pure bliss as he steps inside the actual Three Musicians painting and sings with elation. In a neat touch, the musicians’ and canine’s cubist features change when they hop out of their painting. They become more recognizable as people (and pooch) while still reminding readers of their original appearance. They march by the Sleeping Gypsy, who wakes up, and the lion who watches over her; this duo also pops out of their painting to enter the child’s world.

Colón does not restrict these new friends to the confines of the museum. What happens next makes Imagine! truly inspired, witty, and very funny. The friends bounce out of MoMA and into the heart of the Big Apple, where they hit some major tourist spots. An overhead shot of them leaving MoMA captures the wonder of it all, as a little pigeon (seen in the opening outdoor spreads) joins in their day of fun. It’s amusing to watch them ride the Cyclone (one of the musicians almost loses his hat), munch on hot dogs (the Sleeping Gypsy licks her lips), ride a city train, and party inside the Statue of Liberty’s crown. A wild rumpus has begun.

Choosing which of the ensuing spreads is best poses a difficult challenge. The image of the happy gang marching across a Times Square crosswalk (look at the detail on those buildings and billboards, one cleverly advertising Colón’s Draw!) tickles the funny bone. So does the double-page spread of the characters singing a tune in Central Park. I love the dog blowing bubbles and the lion holding a balloon. Every moment of their adventure enchants us, even as they crowd together in a cab to race back to MoMA before closing time. As the boy bids farewell to his new pals, they all look giddy with happiness, and the feeling of joy is contagious. The book has even more magic to offer. The boy returns to that building with the blank wall, with that aforementioned colored chalk in hand, and creates a mural based on his fantastical adventure. And when he goes to bed, the figures from the paintings glow as they watch over his sleeping form.

In a concluding note, Colón discusses the personal nature of Imagine!. He hopes the book will inspire young people to examine art and perhaps create their own masterpieces. With his impressive and whimsical illustrations, he successfully taps into the imaginative world of a budding young artist who, to paraphrase Colón, feels the artistic fireworks explode and the floodgates open when seeing masterworks in person. Imagine! honors all aspects of the Caldecott Award criteria, respecting the intelligence and potential of child readers.

Brian Wilson About Brian Wilson

Brian E. Wilson works as a children’s librarian at the Evanston Public Library in Evanston, IL. He served on the 2015 Odyssey Committee and the 2017 Caldecott Committee. He blogs at Mr. Brian’s Picture Book Picks at mrbrianspicturebookpicks.wordpress.com.

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Comments

  1. The observational IMAGINE! like its rural predecessor DRAW! can be aptly described as a book about the creative process, yet it magnificently connects the dots between the central protagonist, the endless opportunities of a cultural mecca, and how a propensity takes hold through characters that are humanized through immersion. Colon’s spectacular dust cover portends the revelation the author-artist alludes to by showcasing ghostly images of art bursting to come alive on the stone tower entrance, and the inside cover suggests that a round trip across the bridge is a springboard to creativity. Colon has won many awards but because of the challenges of timing and competition he has yet to score with the American Library’s Caldecott committee. It is hard to imagine (pun intended) this picture book masterpiece won’t be ending this lamentable record.

    Though some other great 2018 picture books like “Stop That Yawn!” , “Run Wild” and “Ocean Meets Sky” give “Imagine!” a good run in the “joy” department, I’d say you are right to acknowledge Colon’s dazzling wordless trek through the Big Apple is probably poll position on that designation. You delineate that propensity superbly in the two middle paragraphs starting with “As the young man glides across the city” and “Icarus magically floats out of his frame.” And yes I applaud your reference point of Colon hoping his work inspires young people to visit the many art institutions in New York City, endless galleries and some of the most renowned art museums in the nation. Just a fabulous qualifications essay, fueled by a ton of passion. I have my fingers crossed for Raul Colon.

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