River

Cover of RiverElisha Cooper’s River is the story of a woman who travels the length of the Hudson River by canoe. She starts one morning at a mountain lake (the book’s backmatter tells us it’s New York’s Henderson Lake), waves goodbye to her family, and heads downstream: “Three hundred miles stretch in front of her. A faraway destination, a wild plan. And the question: Can she do this?

Her adventure (another hero’s journey) is thrilling. And it’s a solitary one, even if the river is always with her. At one point — as the woman spots an eagle, after having set up her tent on a night of thick, wet fog — we read: “There is nothing in the world but her, the bird, this place. No one knows where she is.” (I don’t know about you, but I think this aloneness in the wilderness is both thrilling and terrifying.) On her journey, she weathers hard winds; cold waters; soaking-wet clothes; bloodied knees; biting flies; thunder; a dam; a waterfall; blisters that harden into calluses; sunburns; swift currents; a squall that capsizes her canoe. Oh, and her nerves: “Her stomach flips,” we read, when whitewater rapids threaten to flip her canoe.

Granted, this is a multi-layered story about many things, including a celebration of the natural world — not all her experiences are arduous, by any means, and at its core this is a book about wonder — but I think it’s primarily about inner strength. “Can she do this?” Hell, yeah. She very much can. And does. 

I see something new to appreciate every time I read this book, one with thoughtful design at its service. The abundant trim size, for one, hints at an epic adventure. Look closely at the endpapers to see that the opening ones feature a map of the Northeast, the Hudson River catching your eye. The closing endpapers feature the same map, but this time Cooper adds labels, marking the places where the woman stopped on her journey, as well as noting the things she saw. The dustjacket art is created with the best possible perspective: it puts you, the reader, in the canoe, heading downstream. Remove that jacket to see some of Cooper’s early sketches and reference photos on the cover and back of the book.

The small, gestural watercolor vignettes of the woman undertaking her journey — sometimes she is seen multiple times on one spread, doing various tasks, and other times she may be a dot on an expansive spread — ask us to read the pictures slowly. As we lean in to pore over a spread and see what she's doing, we linger to soak in the sweeping views and see Mother Nature in all her glory. In my favorite illustration, we see the woman sleeping in her tent at night, almost minuscule on the page; the real star of the show here is the night sky, the “moon climbing up among the stars.” The book includes a handful of breathtaking panoramic views — clouds rolling over mountains; the New York City skyline, as she “slips into the city, unseen”; the horizon as she nears the very end of her journey. Cooper’s choices with scale show not only the grandness of the countryside but the immensity of the woman’s courage in setting out alone.

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of River.]

I also like how Cooper plays with perspective. There’s not only that breathtaking cover, but when the woman has to descend through a lock to get around a waterfall, we see all sides of it. I didn’t know what a lock was (forgive me; I’m landlocked), so I learned a lot here. And find me one child obsessed with machines and Things That Go who won’t totally dig this part. (We also get, in the text, a description of how it works; it’s all levers and control shanties and chambers and such.) I can easily envision a preschooler in a caretaker’s lap, eyes wide as the book is read to them. It’s a story that invites children in our hyper-paced world to take a breath and observe. What child wouldn’t thrill at the moose she stumbles upon (she mistakes its submerged head for a rock when she first sees it); the bear cub she sees and reverently and slooowly backs away from (Cooper’s nod to Blueberries for Sal, as noted in this Q&A he did with Roger Sutton); her frantic paddling to avoid a tugboat that barrels upriver; the squall that overturns her; and more. So much more.

I love Cooper’s energetic, unpolished, spontaneous lines. Lean in even closer to see his pencil marks. You can even spot labels he has left on some of the paintings; on the first spread, we see the word blue in tiny handwriting, as well as white next to a cloud. These choices breathe life into these spreads, as if we’ve captured a moment in time. It’s as if we’re getting a picture of the artist’s creative journey as he depicts the woman’s journey down the river. This brings a vitality to the story.

My favorite detail of the book may be that the book opens (on the title page spread) with a ray of sunlight on the woman in her kitchen, as she leans over a map and shows her children where she’s heading. On the final spread, which includes extensive notes on the Hudson River, she’s back home — and it’s night, the dark sky behind her, as she shows her children the drawings she made on her journey. In this way, Cooper brings us full circle. (And notice on that final spread that one child has just torn open the gift Mother brought. Did you wonder what was in the “small wrapped package” the man who built her canoe gives her when she stops on her adventure to have coffee with him? That must be it. Also, the lucky family dog gets the fish-shaped driftwood that the woman finds on her journey. I also love these little details.)

The woman’s river journey ends — her family waiting on a shore and eager to throw themselves into her arms — at a lighthouse. Will we have another Caldecott-winning book featuring a lighthouse? We’ll find out in January. No matter what happens, this exquisite book will remain one of my 2019 favorites.

Julie Danielson
Julie Danielson
Julie Danielson writes about picture books at the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. She also writes for Kirkus Reviews and BookPage and is a lecturer for the School of Information Sciences graduate program at the University of Tennessee. Her book Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, written with Betsy Bird and Peter D. Sieruta, was published in 2014.
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Martha Parravano

Just to add to how cool those spot-the-difference book-ending kitchen scenes are: note that both clocks show the same time (although in the opening illustration, it's 8:20 am and in the closing one, 8:20 pm). Also, adult-me appreciates the very-realistic detail in the closing scene: the two glasses of wine in the background, already poured out :) Seriously, it says a lot for Cooper's understanding of both the book's audience (kids, who won't care about or notice the wine) and the real world (the woman's accomplishment definitely deserves such celebration!) that he included that detail but placed it very subtly, way in the background.

Posted : Nov 20, 2019 05:52


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