Review of the Day: Ergo by Alexis Deacon, ill. Viviane Schwarz
What is your greatest illogical fear? I’ll tell you mine, if you like. It’s the idea of being trapped in your own head forever. Perfectly happy. Perfectly content. Perfectly trapped. I don’t know why this idea bothers me so much. It’s probably why I try not to play too many video games in a given week, and why I like gardens and walks and the proof that comes with leaving your house and seeing that there’s a great big, wide, wonderful world out there beyond my cozy four walls. Of course, for some kids, those cozy four walls offered a lot of solace during the height of the pandemic. Predictably we’re seeing a fair number of picture books comforting them, perhaps a touch too late in some cases. What we’re not seeing is a host of books telling them that outside their doors the world isn’t always scary. It can be beautiful and strange and full of people they might actually like. And Ergo by Alexis Deacon and Viviane Schwarz can be that book, if you like. But don’t limit its use. The true beauty of Ergo is that it’s so much more. It’s a treatise on philosophy as it relates to young children. It’s about escaping the confines of yourself and reaching out to others. And, most importantly, it’s a cute baby chicken picture book where 95% of the action takes place inside an egg. Can’t forget that last one.
When Ergo awakes, the first thing she decides to do is explore the world. This means finding her toes (“WOW. GREAT START”) her wings, her beak, and her legs. The conclusion to all this discovery is obvious. She must be the world. That’s a fun thought, even when she notices the wall that surrounds her. All is well… until she hears something go “BUMP!” And that bump was NOT from inside the egg. Will Ergo discover a world beyond her shell? Will she have the courage? Will she succeed? You betcha.
It’s a lot of fun to compare this book to a previous Deacon/Schwarz collaboration by the name of A Place to Call Home. Like this story, it involved young creatures, unfamiliar with the wider world, blind to what’s around them. Like this story they exhibit courage to face the unknown, and in the end discover that they’ve been seeing only a smidgen of what the world truly is. Mr. Deacon appears to be quite enamored of this theme, and why not? We live in an era where we can exist in our own little echo chambers for as long as we like. The world is vast, but we can make it feel small and manageable with the help of our devices. Yet there is such a benefit in being reminded that the world is bigger than anything we might be able to wrap our heads around. Every time I fly across America, or even just drive half an hour through a couple different towns, I am floored by the reminder that the world is chock full of people that I’ll never meet. Tons of them. And if Ergo isn’t afraid to seek others out, why should I be? That’s the lesson your kids are taking away from this book.
The press for Ergo calls it “a picture book Plato”, which is probably just about the most dead on press material I’ve read in a very long time. Precisely! Ergo is essentially staring at shadows on cave walls. There is a particularly keen moment in this book where Ergo feels a bump, realizes that there is something outside her egg, then discovers that when she tries to imagine it, all she can do is picture different combinations of toes, wings, beaks and legs. She literally has nothing else to call upon to imagine a world beyond her shell. I love the limitations of this (and Schwarz goes above and beyond the call of duty in creating expressionist-worthy paintings of these awkward imaginings). Even when she thinks of other chickens in other eggs, they’re just different versions of her.
Which brings me to Ms. Schwarz herself. Now for a picture book to truly work it must be a collaboration between the story/text and the art. Mr. Deacon’s text is fantastic. Ms. Schwarz’s art, however, elevates it. Her Ergo is remarkably simple. Most of the time it’s just big googly eyes, and black ink on yellow/yellow-orange watercolors. Those watercolors have to portray this little chick as fuzzy, but sometimes they’re also subtle indicators of mood. The orange can be concentration or determination, depending on the situation. And because no two Ergos are ever the same, you get this marvelous multitude of variety within some pretty strict confines (in every sense of the term). Blue dotted lines indicate action, and you get the rare green when Ergo’s egg has been rolling a bit too much, but otherwise this book belongs heartily to the oranges and yellows and Ms. Schwarz’s keen ability to wield both at the right time in the right way.
An ode, now, to typography. I don’t tend to notice it except when it is bad. This is typography’s curse. It’s like air quality. The worse it is, the more you notice it. There are exceptions, and in this particular case Ergo, the book, is so simple that you’re more prone to discovering the book’s type than you might in other titles. Consider the fact that for most of the storyline the main character is relegated to an egg. To make this book visually splendid, therefore, would be a bit of a challenge for Ms. Viviane Schwarz. But Ms. Viviane Schwarz appears to be a woman that relishes a challenge. Put yourself in her shoes. Let us say that you are the artist for this book. You now must illustrate the sentence, “Then something went BUMP!” What do you do? If you are Ms. Schwarz, you rely on your old friend typography to do a bit of the heavy lifting. On the left-hand page is the sentence. The “BUMP!” is approximately 5 ½ times larger than the rest of the words. It commands attention. On the opposite page sits Ergo, in her shell, looking at the reader with the world’s most perfect expression on her face. One pupil is juuuuuuuust a little bit larger than the other. Something about that combination makes me inordinately happy. I can’t explain it. All that I can say is that this two-page spread is what happens with art and text work together in perfect tandem. It’s what every picture book should aspire to achieve.
Part of the joy of the book is that it can be read a multitude of different ways. When Ergo thinks of herself as “the world”, how different is that, really, from those very small children that truly do believe that the world revolves around them? You can read it on a philosophical level (the book is dedicated, on Schwarz’s part, “To all the children asking their first big questions”). It is not a big step from this to asking kids whether or not they think their own world is just an “egg”, so to speak. And while I don’t think that Ergo was written to be a response to the last year or two, boy does it fit the times in which we live. From our online social media keeping us tucked safe and sound in our own comfortable shells, to the relative safety that comes from not leaving your shell, there’s a lot to love. I can’t be the only person staring out my window, just itching to peck my way out and into that beautiful big world out there. Ergo is the proof.
On shelves August 10th.
Source: Galley 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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