So, Chronicle Books recently had a 35% off + free shipping sale. I will disclose nothing except that that’s when I bought This Is Not a Picture Book! and also when I bought today’s book. And that’s the sum total of what I bought, and I think I am to be commended for my admirable restraint. Granted, the sale ends tomorrow and I may possibly have my eye on other items… but, really, only two books so far? You should be asking who took the real Deborah away and who this is instead. Or else maybe I’m not quite as extravagant as I present myself when talking about children’s book purchases… who knows?
What’s the story? Bob is a bird with long, skinny legs. The other animals– the owl, the cat, even the other birds– make fun of him. This teasing makes Bob very sad, and he tries to do something about it. His first attempts are all to try to change himself and his legs: he tries to exercise his legs bigger, he tries to eat his legs bigger, he tries to dress up to hide his legs. None of these attempts works, and he only ends up feeling sad and ridiculous. You’re probably feeling really bad for Bob right about now, same as I did when I was first reading the book, but don’t worry– what happens next is that he goes for a long walk and ends up at the art gallery. There he sees a huge variety of wonderful art and comes away inspired. He decides to paint his beak in different styles every day, some days like Matisse, others like Jackson Pollock, for example. He doesn’t worry about being ridiculous, he doesn’t worry about his legs, he just decorates that beak of his. The other animals love his beak art, and he doesn’t worry about his legs at all any longer.
There are two interconnected aspects to understanding what makes this book so special. One is the story, so sympathetic to poor Bob and his legs. The other is the art. Let’s start by talking a bit about the art, and we can come back to the story. Marion Deuchars is incredibly skilled at linking up her art both with the text she’s writing and with the wider world she’s conjuring up, and all with a fairly limited palette and scene. The key figure of the art is Bob himself: a very minimal figure of a black bird with a red beak and two long, thin legs. He’s featured on every page and each scene is amplified by some additional figure: the cat and the owl and other birds who make fun of him each make their appearances, and there’s a little bat who silently (until the very end) accompanies him wherever he goes. The cat is made with fingerprint art, the owl with strong red lines. The other birds mimic Bob, except with shorter, thicker legs.
But Marion Deuchars’ real skill comes in as she shows Bob’s reactions to these criticisms, all building around that strong, minimal figure of the black bird with the red beak. At first, Bob is stretching his long legs out confidently as he walks, but then the legs fold and his wings droop as cat and owl criticize him, and he folds over to examine his legs as the other birds call out to him. When he exercises at the gym, Marion Deuchars has him in fifteen different (very funny) poses in a two-page spread, showing him intensely, enthusiastically, devotedly exercising his legs. When he tries to eat his legs bigger, he’s given a full page with a massive plate of sausages. Each thing he tries, you see him throwing himself into it as passionately as he can.
When his attempts fail and he ends up at the art gallery, Bob’s world opens up. You see him, a small, black figure, head tilted to one side, gazing at a wall of glorious paintings. (And Marion Deuchars shows herself to be excellent at rendering the famous art Bob is admiring.) On the next page, Bob is a tiny figure in a two-page spread of splashes of glorious colour and fantastic motifs. When he paints his beak, the beak is overlaid on a world of art– well, let me show you:
You see how the beak seems to be part of a whole world of art which Bob is now inhabiting. He’s now strong and confident– no wonder he no longer worries about his legs when he’s now securely in his own colourful space, and presenting himself honestly as he wishes to be.
As I said, Marion Deuchars is truly masterful at weaving together the art with the text, especially in a case where art is at the centre of the book. But it’s the sympathy for Bob that truly comes through. We particularly watch his steady progress from the vulnerability when he’s teased, through his passionate attempts at changing himself, to ultimately finding who he truly is and accepting it: an identity shift which is reflected in the title– “Bob the Artist.” Bob, we discover along with him, is an artist, and his medium is the beak.
The Changeling is, thankfully, too young to have been exposed to teasing (her mother, however, was called “the giraffe” in Grade 6 for whatever reason), but already loves the book anyway. She doesn’t like poor Bob to be sad, and gets really excited when he starts colouring his beak in different patterns. What I notice is that, already, it’s a book of sympathy for her, as it is for me. She feels sympathy for Bob when he’s sad, excitement when he figures out his solution. She likes to watch him figure out how to present himself honestly, even though she doesn’t yet know what that means.
I bet that you do know, though. I bet that you’ve had moments like Bob’s, moments of figuring out who you are and how to put your best beak forward. So maybe check this book out and see how you and Bob get along. I bet you’ll be friends.