Review of the Day: A Penguin Story by Antoinette Portis
Some of the picture books I read make me wish I were a better reviewer. I know my history of the art form. I know what makes one book a stronger better read than another. I can sense when a book will feel right to an adult and to a child. But I am bested by the best sometimes. A Penguin Story comes from Antoinette Portis, a woman who has figured out how to do something extraordinarily difficult: combine good design with pitch-perfect storytelling. Not a Box, her debut, was no fluke. Switching gears away from the imaginative simplicity of her earlier work, Portis retains her sense of bold lines and simple storytelling to tell the tale of a penguin in search of color.
Edna is not a discontented penguin, but something has occurred to her. There is the white snow by day, the black sky at night, and the blue sea and sky. Yet surely, surely there are other colors out there, right? Determined, Edna goes to look for something new. She searches, and she searches, and then one day she finds it. Orange. In delight she invites the other penguins to see as well and they discover the orange to be that of a tent set up by some human researchers. As they leave, the humans give Edna an orange glove, leaving her to wonder whether or not there might be more colors out there unexplored. A green ship in the distance behind her, suggests at future discoveries.
I have a couple tried and true topics which can always be counted upon to inspire a good rant. One of my favorites involves well-designed picture books. Here’s a fun activity: Walk into a museum’s gift shop or a high-end children’s toy store. Now locate the books in that store and tell me what you see. Before your eyes you are going to be treated to a host of titles that pleased adult after adult through every step of their production and completion, and please not a single child once they’ve entered the public sphere. I think of books like David Pelletier’s Caldecott Honor winning The Graphic Alphabet which garnered accolades from grown-ups and soft unbroken snores from tots. And anytime an album cover artist breeds and decides to make some kind of new abecedarian wonder, you can bet it’ll be the cream of the hipster parenting set. My point is that this does not always have to be the case. One Red Dot by David A. Carter, for example, was a wonderful mix of design brilliance and kid-friendly fare. Or Laura Ljungkvist’s Follow the Line might be another example. Portis has discovered this balance, and part of what makes her books so brilliant are their pairing of pure lines and fine storytelling.
As with her Not a Box, Portis is a fan of a thick black line. Her penguins are not expressionless, but they are simplified. They are almost the merest idea of what a penguin consists of. A bullet shaped body. One half black, one half white. A triangle for a beak. Voila! Instant penguin. Yet the black of their backs is often speckled in white. The sea and the sky may sit fixed and blue and pure, but not our petite heroes. And once you get a feel for the blue dotted ice and clouds, you begin to notice the tiny details not immediately apparent in this seemingly simple book. When Edna leaves some of her friends doing acrobatics on an ice flow, the next shot shows them as distant black dots in the distance as Edna continues her search. Much of the book relies on what Edna misses and the reader sees. She does not see the orange plane that flies behind her head, or the deep green ship near the end of the book. Kids will, however, and they’ll get a small thrill in the process.
On top of beautifully designed creatures and hidden details, there are also the colors. It is necessary to the story that Edna find a new color, so it would make sense to find something across the color chart from her already familiar blue. That color, logically, should be orange, and whatta orange! That single picture of Edna drawn entirely in orange, sheer waves of it breaking off her skin, expresses better than anything else the newness of the discovery. It also happens to be coupled perfectly with the next image, a tiny Edna hugging the massive orange tent, her little body leaning into it like it’s a long lost friend. So there you have it. All at once an intelligent use of color to support the story is paired with small touching details that buoy it along. Add in endpapers that are orange in the front and green in the back and you’ve a lovely little surprise on your hands. Seemingly simple, surprisingly well thought out.
Once Harper Collins stops releasing Antoinette Portis books at the end of each given year and starts releasing her during sunnier months, she will find her following. Until that happy day arrives, however, she will have to remain our little secret. For anyone who enjoyed Not a Box or Not a Stick but hungered for a little more story, A Penguin Story delivers that same sweet sensibility with a familiar design. Just the right blend of child and adult friendliness guarantees this book a wide, loving audience. Penguin-related perfection.
On shelves December 23rd.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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