Review of the Day: A Storytelling of Ravens by Kyle Lukoff and Natalie Nelson
Humans love groups. We love separating ourselves into them, or putting other people into them (even when they don’t particularly want to be grouped). As small children, it’s one of the ways we prefer to make sense of the world. Not necessarily in an us vs. them mentality (though that’s bound to come up occasionally) but more as a way of defining ourselves by what we both are and aren’t. I’m this not that. You’re that not this. And, on occasion, we move ourselves out of one group and into another. The animal kingdom isn’t hampered with terminology in the same way that we are, and so don’t care particularly when we thrust our collective nouns upon them. Now I can’t say I’m all that familiar with animal groupings in other languages. What I do know is that in the English language we get a little goofy when it comes to names. A “trip” of sheep. A “business” of ferrets. There are plenty of inventive collective noun books in print these days, but in some ways I feel like few of them have taken the time to put quite as much kid-friendly thought into their writings as Kyle Lukoff has done here. Because with A Storytelling of Ravens there’s a level of decision-making and careful consideration to the writing that is often lacking in other animal group books. It would seem that Kyle has deeply considered the concept of groups, and where one fits in them, and then given each a wry subversive twist. A picture book for children with a penchant for cleverness.
The very first sentence in the book reads, “The nuisance of cats blamed it on the dog.” This is accompanied by a picture of six cats, surrounded by yarn, the ball not far away, one of its tail ends wrapped around the paws of a sleeping dog. All at once, the child reader can see what is happening. Four of the cats are surreptitiously looking at the dog, indicating that they’re curious to see if their plan to shift blame is working, and the other two are doing that cat thing where they ignore everything around them like everything’s fine. By reading this to a kid you can teach them the double meaning of nuisance and have them tell you what’s going on in the pictures. Turn the page and a new collective noun meets your eyes. “The memory of elephants knew the peanut field had to be around here somewhere.” New noun. New double meaning. And new storytelling opportunity. Fourteen double page spreads contain fourteen animal groupings that play with language in creative, kooky ways. Accompanied by Natalie Nelson’s stunning art, this is one book that takes its contents to a whole new level.
I mean, it’s entirely possible that a book of this sort has been done before. But even if it had been, Kyle Lukoff endows each small section with all the backstory and thought of a writing prompt. Have you ever seen Chris Van Allsburgh’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick? In that book, you get glimpses of different mysterious stories. Writing teachers have been using that book for short story writing prompts for years. Well, that book came out in 1984. I think it’s high time we added another book to the prompting repertoire, and A Storytelling of Ravens fits the bill. I mean, the book is working on so many levels at once. Kyle’s coming up with legitimate collective nouns, playing with their meanings, and providing glimpses into stories that could be deeply humorous or moving by turns. One wonders briefly what nouns or animals didn’t make the cut. Some of the obvious ones, like “a murder of crows” are missing, but I don’t think you’d miss them. After all, that could get a touch dark.
My sole objection to the written sections may be the ending of the book, or lack thereof. Picture books without plots have it rough to begin with. Hard enough to sustain interest without reviewers like myself hemming and hawing over whether or not your book ends on a high note. And Lukoff’s could technically be said to end on said note, since the last statement reads, “The exaltation of larks cheered. The Hollow Bones was their favorite band.” I know that the order of nouns in this book would have been carefully considered between the author and editor and that there was a very good reason for the larks to come last. Even so, I think some small changes could have been employed. The beginning, after all, is so very good with that “nuisance of cats”. For a capper to the entire project, I might have switched the larks for the “bloat” of hippos instead. The words don’t necessarily convey that this is the end, but Natalie Nelson has illustrated this one, sly hippo that is giving the readership a knowing smile. It’s the kind of smile that rounds out a collection perfectly.
Read this book with your eyes closed. Wait. That doesn’t make any sense. Okay, have someone else read this book to you while you have your eyes closed. Why? I want you to listen to the cadences. I want you to take in the tone. Here, I’ll help. This is the first sentence in the book:
“The nuisance of cats blamed it on the dog.”
What does that sound like to you? For me, the first thing that came to mind was Edward Gorey. In fact, as odd as it may sound, I honestly believe that if this book had been published 30-40 years ago, Gorey would have been the obvious illustrator to pair with it. An odd thing to say, I acknowledge freely, since the selection of Natalie Nelson as illustrator is both inspired and as unlike Gorey as you might find. Where he was monochromatic, she saturates her world in these luscious gouache paints. Where he would have spent untold hours on a line, she spends the same time on shape, placement, and how the double page spreads direct the reader’s eye. Yet both contain that understated humor so necessary when working hand in hand with Mr. Lukoff’s wordplay. I admit it. I’m impressed.
I do wonder at how much of a hand Mr. Lukoff had in the illustration decisions. For example, for the statement, “The tower of giraffes didn’t know where this new tree had come from, but it was delicious”, did he suggest in his manuscript notes that it be a Christmas tree? Did he say that the “new arrangement” for the shrewdness of apes consist of monkeys on top of monkeys (alas, Nelson’s one flaw is to give the apes in this book superfluous tails, something the editor probably should have caught)? Perhaps there were some notes with the original manuscript but I believe Ms. Nelson must have been given room to grow and play with this book. Often she comes up with inventive little ideas that could only have been hers alone. Look at how the elephants sometimes have drawn noses while others have mixed-media trunks. Or that single owl giving its hoot of dissent in the craziest manner possible while everyone around it gives it the stink eye. With the exception of those ape tails, Ms. Nelson’s free-range art is inventive in all the right ways, with just the correct amounts of whimsy and artistic generosity mixed together.
Is there a term for a book for young children that appeals on a host of different levels? Not just its outward facing premise, but in subtle ways that wouldn’t grab your attention at first? A Storytelling of Ravens, is a collective noun book, a short story prompting text, an opportunity to introduce and define new, complex words in the English language, and a funny book. Don’t downplay the funny aspect, by the way. It may not receive its due in the classroom, but sometimes humor is the spice that makes the whole picture book enterprise all the more pleasing. Lovely to the eye, enticing to the ear, and built with a great deal of care, if you have to pick only one collective noun / animal groupings book for your shelves, this is the one you select. Single animals need not apply.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from 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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