Review of the Day: Kick Push by Frank Morrison
What’s that old saying again? The one about how there are no new stories? Maybe I’m thinking of the one from Mark Twain, where he said, “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.” I think about that quote a lot right now with the current wave of picture book titles meant to bulk up our children’s self-esteem. No doubt you’ve encountered many of these books yourself over the last few years. The thing is, it’s hard to fault a book with good intentions. Titles that want to make our children feel good about themselves should be cheered and celebrated, yes? So why is it that so many of them feel so . . . so . . . samey? The words often just feel like a reconstituted word jumble, placed in a new combination. The pictures? Perfectly decent (my most damning praise). And they all blend together after a while. Blend into a soup of well-intended boredom. Only once in a great while will there be an exception. A book that pulls itself out of the morass of like-mindedness and show a spark of something different. On the outset it may sound like it’s the same old same old, but inside? There’s life to it. Joy. And something utterly original that nobody would think of, let alone try to replicate. When author/artist Frank Morrison is on the ball, his pages crackle with an energy only he could conjure up. Read the plot of Kick Push on paper and it sounds like something you’ve seen a hundred times before. Read the actual book and there’s nothing to compare.
That said, I may as well tell you the plot at this point. Where he comes from, Ivan’s a legend. A skateboarder with moves that have truly earned him the name “Epic”. Now he’s in a new neighborhood, but that’s not a problem. Or is it? Turns out, no one in Epic’s new stomping grounds is into his gnarly tricks. He’s a skateboarder without a crew. Distraught, he throws his board aside and tries the activities other people do around here. Nothing does it for him, though, and it’s only when his dad hands him back his board and says he’ll need it, does he discover that if you do what you love without apology, you’ll find your crew. You’ll find your people.
Recently I was discussing this book with a group of fellow librarians and one of them made an excellent point. They compared Kick Push to fellow 2022 release Beauty Woke by NoNieqa Ramos (illustrated by Paola Escobar) as examples of “vibrant self-empowerment” that are, and I cannot stress this enough, both amazingly written and illustrated. The fact of the matter, folks, is that a book with a subtitle like “Be Your Epic Self” isn’t the enticement to book reviewers that it should be. Why? It’s simple. We’ve let down too many times. And anyway, as far as I’m concerned a book about self-empowerment is one of the hardest books to write well. Not, I should say, one of the hardest books to write. Anyone can write one (and most do). But to project a positive message without coming across as schlocky, tired, or unimaginative? A different librarian I work with was heard to comment recently, “Why do I give illustrations I don’t like a pass when the writing is good, but I don’t give books with poor writing a pass even when the art is amazing?” I don’t know why, but it’s true. As far as I’m concerned, the whole reason Kick Push (and, by extension, Beauty Woke) works is because the writing and the art elevate one another. Too few books can say as much.
Reviewers like myself spend an inordinate amount of time trying to put words to the ineffable. Why does a Frank Morrison production look, feel, sound, and … uh … taste (?) different from every other artist working in the field of children’s literature today? The answer may lie in his own Author’s Note at the front of the book. He writes, “When painting this story, I chose my signature style of mannerism.” Mannerism, eh? *surreptitiously looks the word up on the internet* Ah! Here it is: “excessive or self-conscious use of a distinctive style in art, literature, or music.” Well, that’s the long and short of it all right. Long ago, way back in 2005, I watched Frank win the John Steptoe New Talent Award for his work on the picture book Jazzy Miz Mozetta. That book exuded originality. Watching Morrison, you could see the characters on his pages extend these long, spider-like limbs and start moving with a rhythmic urgency across the printed page. Arms akimbo, knees knocking, it was distinctive and utterly mesmerizing. Frank Morrison doesn’t always utilize his “mannerism,” as he calls it, and I can see why. Have you ever looked at an artist’s work and come to the inescapable conclusion that after its completion they must have been exhausted? That’s how I feel whenever I read a Frank Morrison book. And yet, with Kick Push, I get a different feeling. Like maybe Mr. Morrison was instead energized by the very energy pulsing off of these pages. You certainly feel energized just reading it!
Remember that Author’s Note at the beginning of the book that I mentioned earlier? It begins with A Note from Frank in which he confesses that after “a month” of attempts, he has had to give up his dreams of “becoming even an average skateboarder.” Put another way, his kids are just better. This transitions neatly into an explanation that with this book he is not looking to replicate reality. Instead, his artistic style has been honed to capture “the energy and essence of these moves, rather than the physical reality of them.” I could not express better why this book works for me as well as it does. To my mind, Mr. Morrison is at his best when he has a work before him that allows him to tap into feelings rather than facts. In the course of jumps, stretches, and slides, his characters elongate. Their very bodies lengthen on the page so that you find yourself caught between admiration and only the slightest hint of disbelief. Epic in this book is seen spotlit from behind by the sun. His journey goes from confidence to doubt to confidence again. But part of what I love about the book itself is that he doesn’t have a monopoly on moves. There’s one section in particular where he finds himself caught in the center of a water gun/balloon fight and the girl just right of center is launching balloons that’s blowing one made of bubble gum at the same time may be the very definition of “cool” in my mind from now on. This was a story that perfectly aligned with its creator’s talents.
On the back of this book, written in large graffitied letters, read the words “BE YOU”. A healthy message but one that kids get all the time. What precisely does “BE YOU” even mean? Kick Push isn’t giving your children step-by-step guidance on the matter. What it is doing is providing a situation that becomes intolerable until the hero returns to their true self and stops trying to be some kind of impossible people pleaser. But I would take this a step further. This is what happens in a book when Frank Morrison IS himself. He’s taken his own advice here. He’s let his artistry take wing, and gone all in on a kind of children’s literature expressionism. The thing about Frank Morrison is that no one, nowhere, at any time, looks like him. Turns out the man is also capable of taking a topic that I’d deem near impossible to write about for kids without sounding schlocky, and has rendered it not simply palatable but beautiful. A book that puts the motion in e-motion.
On shelves April 19th.
Source: Galley sent 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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