In the City

I’ll be frank: I’ve got some emotional baggage with Chris Raschka. His Caldecott Award-winning picture book A Ball for Daisy is largely the reason I fell in love with the study of picture books. I was so devoted to the emotional depth of that little pup, as she leapt across the park in glee and melted into her sofa in sorrow, that I dove headfirst into what it was that made a picture book — a wordless one, at that! — so captivating. Ever since, I’ve awaited the latest Raschka title with bated breath, eager to see what slice of the human (or canine) heart he’d open up next.

(That said, like any good committee member, I’ll cast aside his past work and look simply at the book at hand. Or, er, I’ll do my best.)

In the City, Raschka’s latest, begins in what feels like all-too-familiar territory for this year: two children peering out their windows to the outside world. Loose swaths of watercolor, sharpened by thin accent lines in white and black, delineate a broad and tall cityscape around them. Their faces, one brown and adorned with glasses and the other light-skinned, are turned upward toward the dozens of pigeons overhead. Soon, the text asks its first question, echoed by the sounds of the birds: “Where do friends come from? / Loo loo, loo loo. / Coo coo, coo coo.”

Slowly but surely, the urban chasm between the two children closes as their bird-watching brings them together on a park bench, sitting shyly apart on opposite sides of an effectively utilized gutter. That dividing line serves as the only remaining barrier between the two children, save their timidity in each other’s presence.

The penultimate spread shows the two children, with their hands clasped, eyes locked, and pigtails flying, moving as one across the page. They aren't the only ones connecting, though: readers also see two dogs and their shy owners befriending one another, as well as several pairs and trios of pigeons flocking the area. The spread is full newfound friendships, all seemingly serendipitous in their meeting. At last, the book celebrates: “Now I’ve found a friend forever. / Noo noo, doo doo. / Coo coo, coo coo.”

It’s very tempting to fly through this book led only by the busy pigeons and the short, poetic couplets offering a reflection on the nature and possibility of friendship. Frankly, my first (digital) reading was just that. Repeated, and much slower, readings revealed just how much the text begs the reader to slow down and notice. Each pigeon — and there are many — has been given personality in its posture and unique coloring, regardless of its size or “importance” to the narrative. There’s a tenderness in Raschka’s attention to these birds, an often-unpopular and even unwelcome part of city life. In doing so, he invites the reader to gaze at the wonder of the collective cloud of pigeons — and each individual bird — alongside the children in the text.

There’s some masterful use of space to bring these two children together over the course of the narrative. It nearly hearkens back to the strategy in Raschka's Yo! Yes?, in which two nervous children are separated by the gutter and auras of color until, at last, they leap together as one onto the same page. In In the City, the two children are initially separated; they are on entirely different page spreads or are separated by the gutter, establishing emotional and physical separation — even as they share an upward gaze to the avian show above. But they are ultimately drawn together across both space and time, and Raschka’s pacing makes their meeting a long-awaited and joyful one for his readers.

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of In the City here]

The moment I fell for this book, though, was when one page-turn drew my attention to a remarkable phenomenon: a pigeon-ornamented tree had extended its fingers onto the next spread, peeking its branches across the page-turn. Not only had this one bird-laden tree achieved this feat; I realized that every single spread throughout the book had been woven into the next.  As I revisited the book, it suddenly had a much more cinematic feel, reading like a single-shot film.

Even with the connection points across the pages, Raschka still manages to vary the perspective he offers the reader. Each spread moves fluidly from a distanced view of the rooftops all the way to the faces of pigeons pecking bagel crumbs from the ground and back out again. And, sure, it’s a remarkable effect, but it underscores the message of the book in a powerful way: we’re all inextricably connected in the world, if only by mutual witnessing of the wonders around us. Raschka impels his readers to find, between wings of a pigeon, the fluttery feeling of discovering someone new to love — once again, cutting to the heart of the human experience.

 

Grace McKinney
Grace McKinney

Grace McKinney holds an MA in Children's Literature from Simmons University and reviews for the Horn Book Magazine. She works at a Montessori school in St. Louis, Missouri, and writes about children's books and Montessori on the blog Cosmic Bookshelf.

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