Monday, 9 November 2015

2015 Picture Book Challenge: The Whopper

The Whopper by Rebecca Ashdown

The Whopper is the best book I've read from Templar this year.
It is undeniably ambitious to try to tackle truth, feelings and morality in the condensed medium of a picture book, but it narrows its scope sufficiently to pull it off. The story revolves around a lie told by Percy when he ruins a Christmas jumper he wasn't particularly fond of. That moment the Whopper is born and becomes a great metaphor for living with a lie, providing the backbone of the book.

As you can see from this simple but well-designed spread, the Whopper itself is quite a benign-looking thing, but its insidiousness lies in the fact that it just won't go away, becoming more and more intrusive. The story is well-structured and conducted with a light touch, reflected in both text and art. The flexibly stylised illustration and a deft sense of humour keep the tone balanced throughout, which is a real achievement in a story that contains both sinister and humorous extremes. All in all, a well accomplished, entertaining and thought-provoking book.

Wanted! Ralfy Rabbit, Book Burglar by Emily MacKenzie (Bloomsbury Publishing)

Wanted! is an intriguing book. Essentially it is the extended joke of a rabbit whose appetite for books is so voracious he turns to burglary, and it makes great hay with puns and lots of bits of comic invention it can spin out from this premise. The pay-off to the joke is a good one, the build-up supporting the sentiment and the sentiment justifying the build-up. I think the story's very well written, and I'd go so far as to say that the text powers a lot more of the storytelling than the illustration does.

I don't object to the style of illustration or typography in themselves - I wouldn't however make many of the same decisions myself - I just question the contribution they make beyond embellishment. The layout strikes me as off-kilter on near enough every page, and I've just picked out the spread above to demonstrate both the detail in the illustration and the odd compositions. There are curious ellipses everywhere, for example a policeman figures significantly towards the end of the story, but he is never depicted. Unusual but successful, Wanted! is a very enjoyable book.

Where the Bugaboo Lives by Sean Taylor and Neal Layton (Walker Books)

A choose-your-own-adventure style story, about a brother and sister who stray into the woods. This is my third Sean Taylor book of the year, and it probably is the weakest. Firstly I think this is a case of the "interactive" format contributing nothing to the story. The beginning and end points are fixed and there is a clear character line for the siblings involved, duplicated from choice to choice as only the incidental details of the adventure vary. The format does increase re-readability, and, being Sean Taylor, the characters and humour do warrant revisits, but there are other issues I'll go into in a moment that weigh against it. Interestingly, this is something of a comedy-horror book, because in the course of running into the dreaded Bugaboo (I don't think it's much of a spoiler to note that this is inevitable) there are a variety of largely horrible monsters to encounter.

I think this point really engenders what's best and worst about Neal Layton's illustration; the monsters are his best opportunity to create individual characters and environments, but even then show up weaknesses in colour use, composition, draughtsmanship and even collage. Some of these elements work well, but I find it hard to identify a page on which they all work well at the same time. The human characters are very crudely depicted and lack the fundamental characterisation that Layton can more readily bring to the monsters, which lets down Taylor's craft. Without more sophisticated control over line, space and colour, it is very hard for Layton to manage tone. This skews the book towards the gaudy and comical, and leaves the opportunity for more subtle underpinning of character and peril (this is an adventure, after all) unrealised. This is unlikely to matter very much to the book's intended audience who will still find plenty to enjoy, but makes all the difference to me.

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