Review of the Day: Out of the Shadows by Fiona Robinson
I would be the first person to admit that I have no clue how an author goes about writing a biography in a picture book format. When you sit down and think it through, the very idea is ludicrous. An entire human life reduced to a mere 48-pages (at most)? The very nature of the endeavor reeks of hubris. When I was a kid, the picture book biography was almost nonexistent. These days, they proliferate like dandelions in the grass. You can’t turn around without another one popping up somewhere. That abundance means that most, sad to say, are of the mediocre variety. They’re not bad by any means, but nor do they stand out. I’d say, conservatively, that in a hundred picture book biographies you might find five that were particularly memorable. Out of the Shadows is one of the five. In it, creator Fiona Robinson has found a way to discuss the life of the first lady of animation, Lotte Reiniger, in such a way that is not only informative and accurate, but also intricate and interesting. A meticulous retelling, this is a book truly worthy of its subject. High praise indeed.
There was little to suggest in Lotte Reiniger’s upbringing that she was any different from any other child. Born in Berlin in 1899, Lotte loved fairytales. Every member of her family would tell them to her. She was, as they say, “a modern girl who loved traditional tales.” She discovered puppetry in her youth and performance as well. When she attended a lecture by actor Paul Wegener and heard him speak about how animation would be the future, Lotte wanted in. She studied acting at Wegener’s school and soon revealed her talents through the art of papercuts. Next thing she knew, she was on the film crew, making interludes, using stop motion animations to create the Pied Piper’s rats, and she even invented the world’s first multiplane camera. When a rich patron offered her the chance to make a full-length silhouette animated film, Lotte was challenged but gave it a try. The result, The Adventures of Prince Achmed was like nothing seen before. Replicating Lotte’s style in the very art of the book, Fiona Robinson invokes not simply a woman’s life, but her art, her work, and her legacy.
Sometimes an author/illustrator pairs with a project that is perfect for their particular set of skills. Years ago, I fell desperately in love with her marvelous picture book readaloud What Animals Really Like. Its marvelous visual cacophony of controlled chaos is probably what it shares most with Out of the Shadows. Interestingly, at a certain point Ms. Robinson chose to turn her talents away from fiction and towards picture book works of nonfiction. There was Ada’s Ideas about Ada Lovelace and the evocative The Bluest of Blues about Anna Atkins. Thematically, Ms. Robinson seems particularly drawn to the women of the past and their relationship to technology. Whether it’s Ada and the Analytical Engine, Anna and photography, or Lotte and her innovative cinematic techniques, increasingly Ms. Robinson likes to watch how the limitations set upon women periodically crumble when those same women specialize in highly technical projects.
One of the choices that Ms. Robinson had to make from the start was to determine how much of Lotte’s life to tell. Every biographer for kids considers these same questions. Do you try to encapsulate a whole life lived in a scant number of pages? Do you take a snippet of the subject’s life from childhood, zeroing in on a key moment and state that it’s indicative of what would come? Ms. Robinson goes in a different direction. Assessing correctly that the limited 48-page format could only contain so much, she follows Lotte’s life from birth right on up to her premiere of the film The Adventures of Prince Achmed. This isn’t to say her life wasn’t exciting after that point. Heck, the adventures she went through are worthy of full novels. But by limiting Lotte’s life in this way, Robinson is able to do a couple key things with her title. First and foremost, she can show what Lotte was like as a kid. Do that in a picture book biography and it’s an easy way to rouse sympathy in the heart of the young reader. Next, Robinson strategically places throughout the book moments that not only humanize Lotte, but make her likable. For example, there’s a moment when she copies the movements of the animals at the zoo, attracting a crowd of kids, and not minding one jot. Finally, she takes care to include in the back of the book backmatter that not only rounds out an adult’s understanding of Lotte’s life, but also acknowledges the degree to which Prince Achmed relied on harmful stereotypes.
All for naught if the art isn’t any good though. Now there’s a cleverness to these illustrations that sharp-eyed readers may need to look at once, twice, three, or even four times before they catch everything that Robinson is up to. For my part, I didn’t realize at first how ubiquitous the silhouettes in this book are. Sure, Lotte based her life upon them, but look how the author/artist peppers the book with their presence. They’re on the endpapers. They arrive on buses. They’re seen against movie screens and even Lotte herself occasionally becomes a silhouette, even while she’s cutting them. After a while, you begin to try to work out patterns to when a person is or is not silhouetted in this book. To my infinite joy, when I looked to see how the art in this book was created, I found it described as “created using scissor-cut silhouette, watercolors, and felt pen.” Nothing against digital art, but it seemed so much more satisfying to know that Robinson herself picked up a pair of scissors and followed in Lotte’s steps throughout this story.
Speaking of the backmatter, there’s a particular notation in the back of the book that really struck home. In the Author’s Note, Ms. Robinson mentions that homages to Lotte’s work have appeared in everything from Fantasia to the credit sequence of the original film of A Series of Unfortunate Events to the episode of Steven Universe called “The Answer”. When I read that Rebecca Sugar (Steven’s creator) went on record saying that her crew was “hugely inspired by Lotte Reiniger’s work” I realized that other female animators probably are as well. For example, there’s the opening sequence of Vivienne Medrano’s Hazbin Hotel, which is definitely in the vein of Reiniger. This is very much a case of learning about something and then seeing a hundred examples sprout up around you.
How often do we just stop and wonder what the point of picture book biographies even is? I do it more often than is strictly healthy, I suppose. A biography written with young children in mind is, to a certain extent, supposed to teach in some way. Whether it’s offering inspiration or a lesson of some sort, the subjects are usually fairly clear-cut, keeping nuance to a bare minimum. The best of them find their own ways to stand out, though. It is the easiest thing in the world to write a mediocre picture book biography. Writing one that’s as good as Out of the Shadows, that knows precisely where to cut the story, how to present the art, and then allows you to fall in love with the subject? Such books are uncommon little gems. You’re lucky if you find one in a year. I’m lucky to have found Fiona Robinson’s latest. Get your own copy, and guess what? You can be lucky too.
On shelves February 8th.
Media 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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