Review of the Day: Dust Devil by Anne Isaacs
If Pippi Longstocking is a redhead known for her casual legwear, Angelica Longrider (or just “Angel” for short) would have to be considered her blatantly barefoot ginger-headed equivalent. When the Anne Isaacs Caldecott Honor winning picture book Swamp Angel took the stage back in 1994 it was cause for celebration. Here you had an honest-to-goodness new tall tale with a vernacular smart enough to match the pictures, and vice versa. The pairing of Anne Isaacs with Caldecott winner Paul O. Zelinsky was inspired. I was a big fan, yet for some reason I never considered that the book might garner a sequel. Clearly it was ripe for it, but Isaacs and Zelinsky pursued other projects and the thought was all but forgotten. Until now. After 16 years the dynamic duo is back. She’s a wordsmith. He likes to kill himself by painting on wood. Clearly, Dust Devil was meant to be.
Having found Tennessee a bit too cramped to suit her, giantess and all around decent gal Angelica Longrider (“Swamp Angel” to some) has headed further into the country to set up shop in Montana. It takes a little settling in, but she’s happy enough and even manages to tame a wild dust storm into a steed worthy of her skills. Good thing too, since that nasty Backward Bart and his band of no goodniks are terrorizing the countryside, robbing good people of their pennies. If she could wrestle a bear into submission, Angel certainly can handle a couple of toughs. But it’ll take smarts as well as skills to put these nasty bandits away. Good thing she’s got her horse.
The first thing you need to know about Anne Isaacs is the fact that her books, all her books, ache to be read aloud. It doesn’t matter if you’re perusing Pancakes for Supper or The Ghosts of Luckless Gulch. Now sometimes they’re a bit too long for storytimes (much to my chagrin) but for one-on-one reading they’re the tops. I mean, there are certain sentences that just beg you to try them on your tongue. Sentences like, “The barn began to shake, the ground to quake, the windows to break, the animals to wake, and everyone’s ears to ache!” Fear not, this isn’t a rhyming text. There are just certain sections where it’s the right thing to do.
While you’re rolling her sentences around in your mouth, there are also Zelinsky’s images to contend with. Painting on cedar and aspen veneer, Zelinsky is meticulous about his process. The result is a book that is rather achingly beautiful. Even if you don’t take to his style, you have to respect the process. The size of the images combined with the tiniest of brush marks mean that with every other page you’re either backing up to take the whole thing in at once, or you’re pressing your nose to the page, tracing subtle elements with just the tips of your fingertips.
It seems like a gross oversight on someone’s part that Zelinsky has never been tapped to create a graphic novel. Clearly the groundwork has already been laid here. I am referring of course to the man’s use of panels. In an early sequence Zelinsky cleverly breaks up a large block of text into six long horizontal panels. It makes Angel appear downright small, which is a bit of a feat in and of itself. There are other comic techniques Zelinsky utilizes too, if only you notice them. He’s not afraid, for example, to create long two-page spreads where Angelica appears in various places, giving the impression that time is passing. You won’t find so much as a hint of a speech bubble in this book, but when it comes to good old-fashioned visual storytelling, Zelinsky proves his mettle.
By the way, that initial panel sequence is the first example in the book of the man’s penchant for tiny details. When you’re illustrating a book about a giantess, the temptation to inculcate it with hidden details must be irresistible. But the nice thing about this initial sequence is that the tiny details are in Angelica’s face as she peeks from her little cabin. One moment she’s just a quarter of a tiny face looking right at the viewer. The next she has dramatically clasped her hands over her heart in her longing for the trees of Tennessee. Other details are fun to find as well. Can you locate Angel’s little red dog or the black crow that follows her about in the pictures? Did you notice that there are always two cats that appear when Aunt Essie’s around?
You could certainly nitpick about scale, but why bother? If Angel dwarfs the Great Lakes at the beginning of the book and then is small enough to at least make an attempt at mounting a regular sized mare a couple pages later, can you really complain? This is a tall tale, for crying out loud. Exaggeration is the name of the game and if you’re limiting your exaggeration to merely words then you’ve sort of lost sight of the whole point. Mr. Zelinsky has made a bit of a name for himself over the years with his giants. There was the initial Swamp Angel of course, and then there were the Awful Ogre books by Jack Prelutsky. Actually there’s one image in this book of Angel riding a twister, the sole of her bare foot thrust towards the reader this is distinctly Awful Ogre-ish. The man knows his barefoot big folks.
And it’s funny. Yes, full credit to the funny books of the world. The best funny picture books are the ones where the artist’s humor and the author’s humor work in tandem with one another. That is clearly the case here, since the page containing Backward Bart’s evil gang had me snorting out loud. On her end, Isaacs is throwing out names like “Lovely Poe”, “Lawless Sam Diego”, and “Missouri Jerk”. For his part, Zelinsky makes Lovely Poe entirely skewed, Missouri Jerk pomaded and mustached, and Lawless Sam Diego is either falling or reclining, sans shoes. It’s hugely amusing.
I should probably mention problems with the books as well at this point, eh? Uh . . . hrm. Well, that’s a toughie. Cause as I see it, this is a book with appeal for all kinds of kids. Lure in the kids who only like princess stories with the fact that it’s about a pretty lady who tames a horsey. Lure in the battle fans with the fact that she has to go head-to-head with a pack o’ baddies. There’s adventure, great storytelling, and images that’ll make your eyes water. Yeah, I’m stumped. Can’t think of a single critical thing to say about this one. It’s just purely beautiful. But you’ll have to see it yourself to believe me.
On shelves September 14th.
Source: Galley sent by editors for review.
Professional Reviews: Read a couple bits of the FOUR starred reviews from Kirkus, Publishers’ Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Journal.
Interviews: Mr. Zelinsky speaks with Jules at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.
- The most stirring account of the sheer blood, sweat, and tears (mostly tears) that went into the creation of this art is best rendered in the PW article Paul O. Zelinsky’s Bookmaking Saga. It would be nice if this book won a Caldecott, if only so we could hear this tale in a funny speech format.
- Paul’s no fool. He’s managed to turn this book not only into a swank bow-tie, but a vest as well.
- Here’s a recap of a speech he recently gave at the Spring 2010 SCBWI Conference.
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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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