Review of the Day: After the Fall by Dan Santat
Sometimes its easy to forget in the midst of all those picture books about farting dogs, night kitchens, and giant dance parties that initially literature for children had a primary purpose: To instruct. Specifically, to instill in young people a clear-cut sense of right and wrong. Learning to read was all well and good, but what’s the point if you can’t impart some wisdom of the elders along the way? And before you start feeling so superior in your 21st century fancypants, I would remind you that picture books do it to varying degrees of success to this very day. I’ll put it another way. When a celebrity wants to write a picture book what do they do every single time? That’s right, they moralize. They moralize the crap out of their books until the parent forced to read that dreck feels as though someone has clubbed them over the head with a 40-pound hammer. Even the best picture book authors and illustrators have their off books too. They might be brilliant but occasionally the point of the book feels downright clunky. Now I love me my Dan Santat, but the man is human. Some of his books I’ve felt were the bee’s knees and others struck me as in need of more work. After the Fall could have gone either way with me, particularly as it has a very key message at its core. That’s the thing about morals, though. When the right author/illustrator finds the right story at the right time, the final products don’t just fly. They soar.
Nobody enjoys falling off a wall. Entirely aside from the physical trauma, there are deep psychological scars that take much longer to heal. Humpty Dumpty is a plainspoken fellow. As it puts it, falling off the wall was an accident, “But it changed my life.” No longer able to deal with heights, the things he used to enjoy (like bird watching) are difficult in the face of his fears. One day, a paper airplane gives him an idea on how to get a new lease on life. But, as Humpty puts it, “accidents happen.” And sometimes the worst accident can lead to the spit, fire, and raw determination you need to get back in the game.
And now a bit of a confession. This entire review is predicated on a lie. Well . . . not the whole review. But if you know my reviews then you know that a lot of the time I begin them with protestations. “I don’t like dog books but . . .”, “I have a low cute threshold, but . . .”, and (most egregiously), “I don’t much care for didactic picture books, but . . .” Under normal circumstances that last caveat would have been practically the first sentence in this review. Either that or I would have begun by explaining how I came to discover this book in the first place. That I didn’t go either of those routes can mean only one thing – I have inside information about this book. So, to lay it on the line, I saw Dan Santat present this book at a library conference this past summer. Now lest you think I get overly gaga in the presence of authors and artists, a lot of my library conferences consist of listening to creative folks speak at lunches, dinners, panels, interviews, etc. Dan’s no different, but when he told the story about the story behind this book I suddenly found myself seeing it in an entirely new light. You see, someone very close to Dan has suffered from anxiety for a very long time. This book is dedicated to that person because of the struggle Dan has seen firsthand. Look at the book that way and things begin to click in place.
Many’s the time I’ve seen adults tackle adult themes in a picture book format and bog down as a result. When it works, it works brilliantly. Other times it feels like grown-up issues dumbed down or watered down so that they’ll be “kid-friendly”. These books have very little to say to actual children and a lot to their fellow adults. Just because Dan wrote a book with adult anxiety in mind, that wouldn’t necessarily mean that kids would care two bits about it. Fortunately, anxiety is a condition that translates well to a younger literary form. Kids are anxious creatures. Recently my daughter was simultaneously anxious that she’d burn her corneas out looking at the sun during an eclipse and worried that she’d miss it entirely. The fact that Santat chose the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme as a starting point is inspired. Pages like the one where Humpty says that after his accident, “There were some parts that couldn’t be healed with bandages and glue” can be understood by children and adults alike, without sacrificing any of that essential child-friendliness that will keep the book accessible. On top of that, Dan works in that age-old dictum to face and overcome your fears without bludgeoning you with it. And though as a parent I should have seen the end coming, it turned out to be a delightful surprise for everyone in my family.
The writing. Let’s talk about the writing. I’ve written a picture book or two before because of that experience I can now tell that the best ones out there keep the ideas short, succinct, and to the point (clearly not my own personal strength). You can fill your pages with extra literary doodads and folderols but just know that at the end of the day a true picture book doesn’t need excess. Reading this book I could almost imagine Mr. Santat with a paring knife in one hand, ready to cut out any fat or needless jibber jabbering that snuck into his manuscript. This isn’t to say that there aren’t pages that contain up to seven sentences, but they lay the groundwork. For the most part Santat limits himself to the right words at the right time. If you think there’s a lot of white space in this book you aren’t wrong. Just don’t go thinking that the author sacrificed anything essential when he made these cuts. With brevity he slices right to the heart of what he’s trying to convey to kids and they get it, man. They get it.
Santat won a Caldecott for the picture book The Adventures of Beekle not too long ago. A perfectly fine book with an art style similar to that found in After the Fall. Personally I liked Beekle but was never quite as enthralled with it as some folks. I happen to consider this latest book Santat’s best work visually. When critiquing a picture book for its art, you go about it two ways: First you consider the images in the book individually and then you consider how well they work together as a whole. I can’t do that with you here. Not thoroughly. Instead, let’s just take a single example of a moment in the book. In this story Humpty has at last constructed the perfect bird-shaped paper airplane as a kind of avatar, going where he cannot. Now consider the three page turns that go from a two-page close-up on Humpty’s horrified visage as he watches his beloved paper bird soar to the precise location he’s been trying to avoid. A turn of the page and we get this rather remarkable shot of Humpty’s head sticking out in the middle of the left-hand page while the wall, ladder, and bird are equally sideways, born out of the right-hand side of the right page. Another page turn and the angle has shifted yet again. We’re at the top of the ladder on the wall looking down at a thoroughly pissed off Humpty. Look at where the white pace moves in these three sequences. Upper half of the page – left-hand side – lower half (where the wall is). This is just one example but as I read the book through a couple times I noticed these very thoughtful choices on the part of the artist. Things like the fact that it isn’t until Humpty makes his airplane that we get close to him. Before that moment we see him pretty much at a distance. And there are other artistic choices hidden, like the fact that when Humpty experiences his final transforation we never see his face, or the casual inclusion of street and business signs in the town that are in languages other than English. But you sort of have to take the book as a whole.
If someone asked me to do an elevator pitch for this book in one sentence I guess I’d be forced to say something about how it encourages readers to get up again after they fail or get hurt or have some sort of challenge in their life that they need to overcome. That sort of makes the book sound overly simplified, though. I think what Santat’s managed here is something very deft and fleet of foot. This could be an inspirational picture book that people hand to graduates or adults that have suffered some kind of a trauma, no question. But its primary purpose is to speak to children, even if those kids can’t entirely understand what it is that it’s trying to say. There’s no getting around its message. The question you have to ask yourself then is, would you want to?
For ages 4 and up.
On shelves October 3rd.
Source: Final copy provided by publisher for review.
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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