The Ring Bearer

I have long admired Floyd Cooper’s books. His contributions to American art and culture feel vital always, but especially when there are still too few African American authors’ and illustrators’ voices in U.S. publishing today.

The art he creates for his books is distinctive and unique. I do not fully understand HOW his subtractive style works. I’ve pored over his books trying to picture the process of washing color onto canvas and then erasing away layers to create the illustrations. I get the idea, but this is sophisticated work, beyond a layperson, and I suspect, many artists. More important, Mr. Cooper’s art is beautiful. I find myself stopping to look at the colors, naming them, appreciating their nuances and blending, made more eye-catching because of his style.

The Ring Bearer had me at the lavender endpapers. Not that I wasn’t prepared to love any book by the masterful Floyd Cooper, but what an inspired choice of color. This shade of lavender immediately conjures up fragrant, early-summer wedding flowers. What a lovely touch and a promising beginning. The soft lavender echoes the colors on the book’s cover, which features our adorable ring bearer with the flower girl, presumably walking down the aisle. The title page features the ring bearer’s velvety green-gold ring pillow. Wedding confirmed!

Anyone, adult or child, who has ever been a ring bearer or flower girl will relate to the tension building from the start of the story. The difference for our little hero, Jackson, is that he has more on his mind, because this is his Mama’s wedding. “Mama is having a wedding” is the recurring phrase throughout the book, as he sorts through his feelings.

The life changes coming are hinted at in the opening double-page spread on the copyright and dedication pages. We see boxes, plants, suitcases, and lamps. A large moving truck is headed up the street. “Mama is having a wedding and Jackson is worried,” the book begins on the following page. He wonders what it will be like to call his stepfather “Dad,” as he studies a small pink bike parked on the grass.

On the following page, we are at the church for the wedding, and there we stay for the rest of the book. Jackson first cradles the rings carefully in his hands and, later, on their special pillow. His face mirrors his heart and mind, as he ponders this responsibility, one that weighs heavily on him. Spread after beautiful spread leads us through Jackson’s worries and the reassurances of family support to help him make it safely down the aisle.

The backgrounds of most pages are soothing shades of muted browns and grays. These colors feel comforting and are a nice foil for the tension of the story. That the background is a little fuzzy, primarily empty, sometimes with just hints of the church or other wedding action, feels reassuring, keeping us focused on the emotions at play and on Jackson, our hero. While there is more than one big-something happening to be nervous about, Jackson — and readers —always have the confidence that he and Sophie, his soon-to-be stepsister, are being well looked after.

The story is so relatable that, within a few pages, readers are emotionally invested in the well-being and success of Jackson’s ring-bearer duties, as well as the coming changes in his life. Too often stepfathers are relegated to the bad-guy role in stories, and I found myself so wanting Bill, the groom, to be a good guy. Will he be a great father to our Jackson? Happily, Bill is kind and fun: in the first moment we meet him, he notices that something is troubling Jackson. He playfully lifts Jackson up onto his shoulders, making him smile. Whew! All will be well there. We also get an extra hint of the closeness between them from the nice burst of color with the robin-egg blue vest that Jackson is wearing and Bill’s matching tie.

And then the big moment begins as the music starts. “Mama’s having a wedding, and Jackson has an important job to do, and no matter what Sophie does, he will not trip down the aisle!” Sunlight pours through a window. That light turns to a rainbow as it streams through — another subtle but eye-catching detail.

There are a few inconsistencies in the rendering of some of the characters that, as a non-visual artist, are hard to understand. Why does Bill look a bit different on some pages than he does on others? Why does Jackson’s ear, so perfect on one page, seem so out of proportion on another? Where is Jackson’s fourth finger when he holds on to Bill’s head after being lifted up, when on another page, his hand is beautifully drawn?

By far the most memorable illustrations are those of Jackson. His expressions are a mirror of his sweet self. One of the best depictions is early in the story, as Jackson studies Mama and Bill’s rings with seriousness, while looking a little overwhelmed. Another one is of Jackson who, after making it down the aisle, leans in to check on Sophie, making sure she is okay. When Mama bends down to whisper to him after he saves Sophie, Jackson’s face is filled with unforgettable joy and pride.

As the wedding ends, we get to see the new family together, loving and happy, celebrating everyone’s success. The text reads, “Mama got married, and Jackson handled his job just right!” The Ring Bearer is a sweet and universal story, resplendently illustrated. I’d say Floyd Cooper got it just right. I hope the Caldecott committee takes notice.

Read the Horn Book Magazine review of The Ring Bearer here.

Allison Grover Khoury
Allison Grover Khoury

Allison Grover Khoury is a librarian at Wish Charter School in Los Angeles. 

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Sam Juliano

Susan, I have to say this to you: I really and truly ADORE Bagram Ibatouline's work, and certainly would add him to this list in a heartbeat and in fact will now that you pose him. I morned the committee's decision not to award THE MATCHBOX DIARY, a picture book masterpiece to rate with PEPPE THE LAMP LIGHTER in the Italain immigrant book masterpiece category. And I also am counting this current year's THE HAWK AND THE CASTLE as a treasure well deserving of Calling Caldecott treatment, but I completely understand we can't cover every possibility here. But the book is stunning like all of Ibatouline's work. My wife chose THE MATCHBOX DIARY as the her favorite book of that year. For some reason I was considering him (Ibatouline) of more recent vintage -not quite a veteran- but true enough he's done q bunch of stuff so he does qualify in that category. Like everyone I do like Jan Brett as well, quite a bit! Thank you!

Posted : Dec 12, 2017 05:44

Susan Dailey

Sam, I'd add Bagram Ibatoulline to your list and I know several people who'd add Jan Brett. Thanks for your comment.

Posted : Dec 12, 2017 12:19

Sam Juliano

Susan, excuse the intrusion, but I would have loved to be a fly on the wall at the time Floyd Cooper staged that demonstration. I have to really express total agreement with you when you express amazement Cooper has yet to be awarded Caldecott recognition either for the medal or an honor. I always mention him along with Wendell Minor, Raul Colon, Barbara McClintock, Sergio Ruzzier and Douglas Florian of the true veterans of the form who by way of the wrong timing or a string of bad luck have yet to score despite all kinds of awards and citations otherwise. I'd like to think Mr. Cooper has made his strongest play yet with THE RING BEARER and WHERE'S RODNEY?

Posted : Dec 05, 2017 02:13

Susan Dailey

Allison, I saw Floyd Cooper a long time ago and he demonstrated his technique. It is amazing and mind-blowing! How he can create such realistic images that capture expression so well is truly a gift. The fact that he's never been recognized by the Caldecott Committee is also amazing. Here's hoping this year changes that. Thanks for the great review.

Posted : Dec 05, 2017 01:12

Sam Juliano

I need to add a second comment to make sure I am not sending an errant signal Allison. Your final sentence: "The Ring Bearer is a sweet and universal story, resplendently illustrated. I’d say Floyd Cooper got it just right. I hope the Caldecott committee takes notice." ....does make it clear that your summary judgement is enormously positive, and I am happy to stand with you in hoping the Caldecott committee clears the way for Floyd Cooper to end up in the winner's circle. :) Thank again. Loved the review.

Posted : Dec 04, 2017 10:52

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