The first thing I have to explain is that I love Wednesdays. Wednesday is “ballet day” at my house: I pick up my daughter from Pre-K a little early, take her to ballet, she has class for 45 minutes (which allows me to get a cup of tea or relax for a bit), and then we have a nice walk home during which she usually shows me all of her ballet moves. I love it, the Changeling loves it, and all is well with the world.
Usually I go to a café during her class and write some letters to friends (45 minutes is a bit too short for real work, so I catch up on correspondence instead), but today I had another job. I went to the Harvard Book Store to pick up a present for a friend, and since I was there I decided to spend the time perusing the picture book shelves for any books I might have missed. I did it slowly, publisher by publisher (Chronicle Books, Candlewick, Charlesbridge, Kids Can Press…) browsing for books I had missed, or else for books I’d heard of but never looked through (guys– Princess and the Peas from Charlesbridge is as great as I’d expected). 45 minutes sped by quickly, let me tell you!
The whole time I had a feeling there was a book I wanted. You see, I’ve been busy, busy, busy lately, and bold colours and animated text weren’t what I wanted. Don’t get me wrong: I love super active books like Who Done It? and This Is Not a Picture Book!, but today I needed something to slow down and think a little. And I found Shelter, by Céline Claire and Qin Leng, from Kids Can Press. I want to start out by saying kudos for the production values of this book: everything about it is beautiful, from the leaves on the endpapers to the spot art showing a ladybug sheltered under a leaf. I love a pretty book, and this was appealing from the moment I picked it up: my busy feeling slipped away and I relaxed. Just look at this cover! (And, well, I always feel a patriotic glow when I see Kids Can doing well on this side of the border.)
So what is the book about? It starts off with a general view of the animal world, watching different creatures waking up in the morning, and then focusing in on them as they prepare for an oncoming storm: we see the individual animal families gathering wood and food and generally making preparations. Then we meet one of our main characters: ‘”What if others are still outside?” Little Fox asks.’ Two figures emerge from the frost as he speaks, and these two strangers go from house to house, seeking shelter from the storm. They ask for warmth at one house, food at another, and light at a third. Each time they’re turned away with a lame excuse, even from the Foxes’ door. Little Fox, however, runs after the strangers, who turn out to be Big Brother and Little Brother Bear, with a lantern, concerned about them.
When the snow becomes heavy, the Foxes’ den collapses and they become the family without shelter, barred from their own home. I could be coy here, but I won’t be: Little Fox sees a light in the distance: the lantern he gave to the strangers! The strangers had built a shelter and share it with the Fox family. It may not be the most luxurious home, but when we share with each other, the implication goes, it’s amazing how even a small act of generosity can make all the difference.
It was exactly what I was looking for– gentle, heartwarming, and not preachy in the least. Much as I loved the story and the message of the book, though, I want to draw your attention to something I truly love to see done well: the interaction between the art and the text.
A note about the art style, first: it is so dreamy yet precise and vivid, with a deceptively simple use of line, that it reminds me of Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge books. Qin Leng works with what might be my very favourite combination of media: pen and ink and watercolour. That combination is absolutely perfect for this gentle story.
The effect of the art might be dreamy, but that doesn’t make it passive. In fact, the art plays a singularly active role in the storytelling. It is easy to see that there must have been considerable close collaboration between all parties working on this story as the work was underway, because, honestly, if the text were removed from the page (or if you’re a four-year-old who can’t quite read yet, in the Changeling’s case), the illustrations still tell you quite a lot of the story, and even fill you in on details that aren’t explicit in the text. I can’t quite explain this without illustration, of course, so take a look at this spread (sorry it’s late and I couldn’t get decent light– I think you can see what’s going on, at least, but the illustration is a thousand times better in person):
You see the strangers at the door, asking for something. The family is cuddled in front of a roaring fire, the father standing and shouting back at the strangers. The text informs us that the strangers are seeking warmth, and the father is saying, “Our fire is out. Try next door.” As I was reading it with the Changeling, I asked her what she thought, and she pointed out the fire. The text might not have been legible to her, but she could fill in the gaps perfectly. On a more subtle level, notice the characters. The text is so low-key and subtle that they aren’t individually named or introduced, and yet by the genius of its interaction with the art, each character is fully realized.
Why is this important? I could say, simply, that it makes the book prettier and more interesting, or I could say that it’s just a tour-de-force, an exemplar of the power of collaboration between art and language. These are all true. But in this book, the impact is undeniable: the text is gentle and limited and the art carries a lot of the nuance. What this means is that it’s not up to the text to say that the animals were lying to the strangers when they turned the bears away from their homes. This is made evident by the illustrations, but the harsh, preachy words, “they lied,” aren’t there. We see, we understand, but without being jolted out of the world of the book. I’m not saying that the text is lazy while the art does the work: I’m saying that it’s like weaving, with the text as the warp and the illustrations as the weft. They’re inseparable, and each thread depends on the others for structural integrity.
Simply put, this is a beautiful book, an ideal of its kind. It’s also timely, in an unfortunately evergreen sort of way. Right now, as we debate issues surrounding immigration and refugees on the world stage, this gentle story which unflinchingly discusses the need for shelter, the denial of shelter, and, ultimately, the sharing of shelter, is a perfect introduction to generosity and why it’s needed. And so, as the holidays creep up, maybe consider getting a few copies for the children in your life and start a conversation or two.