In the Half Room

Anyone who’s ever spoken to me about picture books knows how much I love Carson Ellis’s illustrations, and it’s obvious I’m not the only one: in 2017, Du Iz Tak? won a Caldecott Honor. Upon my first reading of In the Half Room, her latest solo picture book, I wished for a Carson Ellis bingo card: pops of jewel-bright primary colors, anchored by muted pinks, greens, and browns? Check! Whimsical, intriguing concept? Check! Cozy, folk-art-inspired elements? Check! Some kind of lush, stylized greenery? Check! Casual, deliberate blurring of boundaries between reality and fantasy? Check, check, check! And yet ... the narrative arc is vague, there are barely any characters, and the setting is quite limited. It’s eerily appropriate for a year in which we’ve socially distanced ourselves, spending more time than usual within our homes, doing our best to live with the uncertain timeframe and outcome of a global pandemic. It’s also unlike anything she’s done before: different enough that I’m not sure how this year’s Caldecott committee will respond to it. So, here I am, gamely typing into the void, making a case for an unusual book published in this most unusual year.

Ellis’s mastery of her medium is evident, and the style is certainly appropriate: saturated, textured gouache illustrations construct recognizable three-dimensional objects with precise, abrupt edges that delineate their half-ness. (The story is set in a room in which everything is a half — "Half a window / Half a door / Half a rug on half a floor." In this room sits a half woman and a half cat.) Note the square trim size; the cream-colored cover with its clean, orderly composition; and the lack of a dust jacket. The die-cut window on the front cover is playful and effective, literally pulling the reader into the book to find a half-moon in the endpapers. An identical scene — a nighttime landscape in which half a house and half a tree stand at the bottom of a series of barren hills, while chimney smoke, stars, and the half-moon hang in the sky — occupies both front and back endpapers, suggesting that this particular landscape is critical to the story within. Indeed, one of the most significant moments occurs after a comet flies toward the house in a near-identical scene: a half woman appears at the door, the two half women “SHOOOOOP” together, and the now-whole woman leaves the half room to dance across the (seemingly whole) landscape. Considering the book’s repetition of objects and phrases, and its final two words (“good night!”), it’s clear that this is a book designed to be read and re-read, bringing the two halves of the woman together each time, while keeping all her pieces contained between the starry endpapers.

The pictorial interpretation is seamlessly integrated with the text, which echoes the semi-rhyming cadence and inventory-like style of Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon. In this case, the text is very matter-of-fact as it catalogues half-chairs, half-floors, half-books, and half-cats, leaving the illustrations to confront this disorienting prospect. Laid out in Ellis’s signature color palette, however, the effect is more whimsical than distressing. Each object appears to function as though it is whole (for example, the half chair balances upright on two legs), although there are some notable discrepancies when it comes to the halfway point of each object. Especially confounding is the half cat, which — unlike the woman, who is halved vertically from the top of her head — is split vertically at its stomach so that it has no hind legs nor tail. (As with the half woman, the cat’s other half arrives later.) What’s perhaps most interesting is the way in which the half-objects occupy and activate the spaces within the room: in a spread depicting “half a rug on half a floor,” the named objects are visible on the recto, while the chair, table, shoes, and lamp sit in white space on the verso, along an invisible horizon line that matches the half floor across the gutter. Despite there being only “half a floor,” it’s clear that there is something upon which the other objects rest; half-objects may exist, but they are still subject to the laws of gravity and a third dimension.

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of In the Half Room here]

As an object, In the Half Room feels simultaneously very random and profoundly personal, like flipping through an in-progress sketchbook. The way the book is structured — shifting between close-up spot illustrations of individual items and double-page spreads of the room — has the effect of a multidimensional collage or a daydream, where each page-turn reveals more disparate signifiers of domestic life (a shoe, a book, a rug, a door). The combined objects serve as a portrait of the half room’s inhabitant (who, coincidentally or not, shares Ellis’s red hair, bangs, and freckles) and live on in the half room after she leaves it. We never learn how the half room came to be, or whether its inhabitant has always lived there, or how she is able to navigate the space as half a person.

While the open-ended, surreal nature of the book invites multiple readings and interpretations of its stylistic and narrative choices, I can’t help but ascribe special significance to the fact that both living beings in the book each encounter their “other half.” While the book initially establishes the half room and its half-contents as being perfectly functional and useful, the woman’s blissful smile after her two halves unite suggests that, even in the world of the half room, being whole is preferable. I’m intrigued by the tension between these seemingly conflicting messages, and I wonder: does wholeness look the same to everyone? Does everyone have their own mental version of the half room? Why would the cat choose to remain separate from its other half, unlike the woman? Regardless, there’s something especially poignant now, in January 2021, about the act of claiming a space for those of us who might not feel whole, or for all the incomplete pieces that make up a life — a space that resists a straightforward narrative, and which is beautiful all the same.

So, by virtue of its originality, its excellence in artistic and narrative execution, and its sheer refusal to let me mentally wrestle it into making sense, I hereby submit In the Half Room for your Calling Caldecott consideration. Get your Carson Ellis bingo cards ready!

 

Sabrina Montenigro
Sabrina Montenigro

Sabrina Montenigro holds an MA in Children's Literature from Simmons University and reviews for Kirkus. Formerly a bookseller at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, she now works at Scholastic.

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