I was a pretty curious child, who liked to poke and peek. I asked a lot of questions (and still do). Helen Yoon's Off-Limits captures this kind of spirit and energy of exploration and curiosity, one that many young children possess. There’s something so exciting about being told that some place or some thing is FORBIDDEN. Naturally, we immediately wonder, “Well, why is that so? Why can’t I go there or do that?” and it makes exploring that off-limits-thing so much more intriguing.

The cover of Off-Limits makes it clear what we’re getting into. A girl stretches just high enough that it’s a bit of a struggle to touch a set of brightly colored pens and office supplies. We can sense her mischievous energy and determination as her pink tongue sticks out from the effort. The illustrated title of the book cleverly interrupts the word “Office” with a slightly taped-over sign that reads “-Limits,” creating “Off-Limits.” Our eyes focus on the girl’s gracefully stretched hand, which is drawn with crisp black and soft red lines. Yoon does some really wonderful things with hands in this book to define the characters’ personalities.

The story begins quietly with the girl’s father very clearly placing an “Off-Limits” sign on his office door. I really love the angularity of Yoon’s mixed-media illustrations. They are blocky yet soft; angular yet full; and almost always defined with a very solid black line. We meet the girl as she peeks at her father walking away from his office door. We watch her enter the room. I love the perspective that Yoon gives us next. We view the scene from inside the dark, mysterious room, as the girl pushes open the door and lets in a little light. The girl says to us, “Hello! I’m just looking. There’s nothing wrong with just looking…” Is that so? Haha. This book doesn’t have much dialogue and veers closer to a wordless picture book in how much heavy-lifting the visual narrative does. That being said, the text Yoon does include is very deliberate.

The story progresses like a snowball quickly rolling downhill. You simply can’t turn away as the girl falls deeper and deeper into office-supply-blissed out-imagination-fun-time. This little girl is truly a creative soul making good use of her artistic energy ... while trespassing. YOLO! I love what Yoon does with spirals, movement, and patterns in this book. She uses the wide, full spreads to portray the girl’s happy energy as she explores every nook and cranny of her father’s office. I also love how well-paced the story is. There are spreads of action, movement, and whimsy followed by abrupt, quiet curiosity. There are some great page-turns as well. My favorite two are when the girl suddenly stops moving (eyes focused toward the next page), opens a drawer, and BOOM! discovers the wonder of sticky-notes. A garland of bright yellow sticky-notes arc over her head as she stares up at them, eyes wide.

I love Off-Limits because Yoon knows how to tell a story. This book has a very well-constructed narrative, both text-wise and visually. It is a delight with its sharp lines, detailed expression, great use of perspective, and trippy, mosaic-like spreads. The illustrations are so pretty that you’ll forget you’re looking at office supplies as you admire the repeating patterns and chaos. Yoon understands a child’s sense of mischief and curiosity and creates a story that celebrates and honors that raw energy.

Off-Limits is a beautiful exploration of curiosity through an explosion of shape and color, with a wonderfully satisfying ending. I hope the Caldecott committee has this gem on their radar.

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of Off-Limits.]

Alia Jones
Alia Jones

Alia Jones is a Library Assistant at the University of Cincinnati Science and Engineering Libraries. She was a member of the 2020 Caldecott Award Committee and is currently on the 2022 Coretta Scott King Book Awards Jury.

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Betsy Bird

I couldn't agree more! This book is the readaloud of the year, as far as I'm concerned. And that visual splendor is something that Yoon makes us think is easy and isn't. The Caldecott this year is probably going to contain some incredible books with very serious, heavy themes. I'd love to see something lighter and joyous mixed in there as well. This book more than fits the bill.

Posted : Dec 02, 2021 02:49

Martha Parravano

Yes! I'm totally Team Off-Limits. The book's unbridled joy is so infectious, the girl's personality so elegantly delineated, the situation so relatable, the art so gorgeous. And if the Committee doesn't like 'lighter,' I think there's an argument to be made that it's not so light after all. It's about creativity! making art out of what you have! the enterprising spirit! And of course there's the dad's gender-stereotype-busting at the end.

I'd also add that as a picture book, as an art form itself, the book holds up to Caldecott-level scrutiny, with all its parts -- text, art, typography, page layout, page-turns -- working together perfectly.

Posted : Dec 02, 2021 02:49



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