Review of the Day: Lulu and Pip by Nina Gruener
To what do we credit the distinct increase in children’s books containing photography this year? I posed that very question to a group of children’s book photographers not that long ago and the answers were telling. In the past, creating a book of high quality color photographs cost beaucoup de bucks. Plus children’s books illustrated with photos were in black and white. Yet as color photography became more and more ubiquitous, publishers found that folks were unwilling to buy children’s books that were black and white. The era of The Lonely Doll, J.T., and others was over. Yet prohibitive costs kept photos in children’s books minimal. Then came the rise of digital photography and cheaper printing techniques on the part of publishers (see 100 Scopes Notes for the full round-up for 2014: http://100scopenotes.com/2014/08/01/the-state-of-photography-illustration-in-2014/). The floodgates consequently opened and what we’re seeing now is a variety of different types of children’s books that use everything from handmade models to wildlife to cut paper techniques. Few of these really harken back to the 1950s and 60s big books of photography. Few, that is, but Lulu and Pip. A companion of sorts to the author/artist’s previous book Kiki and Coco in Paris, the book shouldn’t work as well as it does. Yet all the elements align so perfectly that there is nothing to say except that it is undoubtedly the most charming work of pure photography in a children’s book format that I’ve seen in years.
Meet Lulu. She’s a girl. Meet Pip. She’s a doll. The two are inseparable and that’s a good thing since living in a big city like San Francisco can be intimidating. Then one day the two pack up their things. Today they’re leaving the city for a campout in the wild and that means leaving behind all the toys, except Pip. Once there Lulu adjusts to the differences. She’s wary of the donkey they meet and she realizes that she may have brought too much stuff. Still, next thing you know the twosome are cooking their food on a fire and getting a glorious view of the universe above. The next day it’s all fishing, swimming, and exploring. But when Lulu and Pip get lost without a clue how to return to their campsite, they find help from an unexpected source.
I was in a wonderful independent bookstore when I first spotted this book. Because of the nature of my job I don’t usually buy children’s books all that often, but there was something unique about this title. The size, for one thing. Coming in at an impressive 9.8 x 12.8 inches, the book stands just slightly taller than the other picture books on your average bookshelf. It distinguishes itself. Then there’s the arresting cover. Photography is too often the last bastion of the sentimental. Whether we’re talking Anne Geddes or the art in the style of Nancy Tillman, there are those that believe that photography only works when its used in the service of the easy aww. The jacket image seen here of a little girl kissing a donkey would seem to support that belief, but that’s a textbook case of judging a book by its cover. I had only to open the book to see that this wasn’t the usual fare. Not by half.
First and foremost, the star of this book is photographer Stephanie Rausser who carries a particular talent for photographing kids and lifestyle types of images. The red-haired moppet that is her subject is a charmer. Cute but not cloying. The shots of her that pepper the book are carefully selected and cropped. As for the photos themselves, I took great joy in them. There’s a shot of Lulu and Pip’s feet in a stream, the sunlight filtering through the water that socks it to you. In books of this sort I’m not a huge fan of images that feel staged. I’d rather go about believing that the photographer is some kind of guerrilla-style rebel than a professional who sets up her shots. Still, because she has the lifestyle background, Rausser gets very natural shots out of her young muse. Only the occasional image (peeking around a tree, exiting her tent, etc.) feel like you’ve accidentally picked up a copy of Parents Magazine or something. For the most part, Rausser keeps it real.
What also struck me as remarkable on a fifth or sixth reading was how well the design of the book incorporates the text into these images. I don’t know if Ms. Rausser took them while thinking in the back of her head about where the text was supposed to go. Illustrators are very keen on such matters, so photographers should be just as vigilant. As it stands, the book does a very good job of breaking the images into more than just full-page bleeds. Some pictures will appear only on the left or right hand side of the page. Other times the pictures will fill both pages in long horizontal spreads. Because of the nature of the shots the text changes from black to white and back again depending on the levels of contrast to be found. In spite of that, the book is easy to read and visually stimulating.
Full credit where credit is due to author Nina Gruener too. I don’t know the background behind this book. I don’t know if Ms. Rausser, in her capacity as a photographer, took these images first and then they were handed to Ms. Gruener to cobble together into some kind of story. If that was the case then she is to be commended. Such assignments often come off as feeling forced or false. Not so here. Gruener keeps the tone light and the storyline frisky. It is equally possible that Ms. Rausser was handed the text first and then took the pictures to match, of course. Or perhaps it was a bit of a combination of both. Whatever the case, the book reads very nicely. It’s not swimming in purple prose or anything but neither is it austere or simplistic. It tells the story it has come to tell and tells it well. Nuff said.
Because my daughter is a city kid I was much taken with the plot of a urban child’s first rural campout experience. As odd as it sounds, camping isn’t a common activity in children’s picture books. Not realistic camping sans bears anyway. And though the book does eschew the issue of mosquitoes, it’s realistic in its portrayal of campfires, smores, tents, night sounds, hiking, and star filled skies. It fills a gap in library and bookstore sections everywhere and will be of great use to those parents trying to excite their kids with the prospect of sleeping beneath the stars. Mind you, it may raise expectations of certain kids a bit far. If they’re hoping to bag a gigantic rainbow trout on their first fishing trip then they are bound to be woefully disappointed.
Perhaps Lulu & Pip marks the beginning of something. Maybe we’ll be seeing large format picture books of fictional stories featuring real kids a lot more in the future. Maybe. Certainly Rausser takes care not to include much of anything that will significantly date this book. Technology and gadgets are nonexistent and Lulu herself is dressed in contemporary children’s fashions that, with only a few exceptions (sneakers, etc.) won’t be dated anytime soon either. There’s a lot to love about this one-of-a-kind little book, and a lot to enjoy. With any luck, Rausser and Gruener will continue their partnership of creating great books and we the readers will be the lucky beneficiaries. Marvelous unique stuff.
On shelves now.
Source: Copy purchased at The Book Beat.
Like This? Then Try:
- Yes, Let’s by Galen Goodwin Longstreth
- The Lonely Doll by Dare Wright
- The Red Balloon by Albert Lamorisse
Misc: Don’t miss the outtakes. Ms. Rausser’s site has additional photographs of this book. Some made the cut. Some did not.
Video: And finally, some more info on the book.
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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