Review of the Day: The Legend of Gravity by Charly Palmer
Years and years ago in 2006 or so, Patricia McKissack wrote a book for kids that has stayed in my mind ever since. The book was called Porch Lies: Tales of Slicksters, Tricksters, and Other Wily Characters and it was this marvelous collection of “liars’ tales”. Which is to say, tall tales told, in this case, historically in Black communities. Since I read that book, I’ve seen other books for kids sort of touch on the idea of liars’ tales or liar’s contests. It’s just interesting to think of them in the context of tall tales. Books like Thunder Rose by Jerdine Nolen, with art by Kadir Nelson, are far more in the strictly tall tale business. But what happens when a book takes tall tales and liar’s tales and then ties all of that into some of the finer examples of trash talk and blacktop exaggeration? The Legend of Gravity by Charly Palmer is that link. With a deft hand Palmer connects all the different forms of storytelling in our real lives today with the oral traditions of the past.
“In my youth, nobody had mobile phones with cameras, so pictures and videos from that time are rare. Like unicorns and mermaids, people claim to have seen these fantastic creatures. But this is no fantasy, and that’s why I wrote this story about what happened that day on the blacktop in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.” So says author Charly Palmer in the Author’s note at the end of “The Legend of Gravity”. What fantastic creatures is he referring to? Basketball players, my friend. Not just any players either. Players with skills so incredible, the only way to tell this tale true is to tell it big. On a day when five friends are playing a game on the blacktop, in walks a new kid. He seems a bit gangly. A bit awkward. But when he shows off his abilities in the hopes of a three-on-three game, there can be only one name for him: Gravity. As in, he defies it. With Gravity on their side, the crew is sure they can win the “Best of the Best” Milwaukee pickup basketball tournament. But when push comes to shove, is Gravity all they need? Or do they actually need one another?
This isn’t Charly Palmer’s first picture book, but it is the first book he’s written and illustrated himself. Now it’s always a little worrisome when great illustrators try their hands at writing. In this particular case, put that worry to bed. Apparently, Charly Palmer has been holding out on us all these years. While he was illustrating the books of other people, it turned out that he was hiding his own superior talents. This story is written with such skill and style that I have to be honest and tell you that I really hope he doesn’t illustrate anyone else for a while. Because right from the get-go his book has its voice. Palmer writes things like, “Well, pull up a chair and let me bend your ear for a minute with the legend of Gravity.” Or, “He wore baggy shorts hanging down to his knees. And he had waves so tight it would make you seasick.” This casual tone with details that bite then transitions like butter into the more otherworldly elements of the tale. By the time you get to the ridiculous details (“Gravity once jumped so high that we were able to go out for ice cream before he came down”) you’re so charmed you’ll believe anything the narrator says.
Don’t think the wordplay is doing all the heavy lifting here, though. Palmer had to figure out how to illustrate a lot of the brags, boasts, and outright exaggerations we see in the text. For example, that moment when it says the boys went out for ice cream, you get this really subtle accompanying piece of art. It’s this magnificent shot of Gravity. You’re looking down on him from an even higher vantage point so that his head is out of the frame. Meanwhile, down below on the court, if you look at the boys waiting for their friend to descend, they each are holding ice cream cones. It’s subtle but it’s there. A lot of the art in this book is as much what you don’t see as what you do.
Now Charly Palmer has a style that I wouldn’t confuse with anyone else’s. Couldn’t confuse with anyone else’s. We currently live in an era where even the thickest of paints on a page might have been replicated on someone’s tablet. Mr. Palmer, however, is a fine artist to his core. He’s been in the business of painting for thirty years or more, but only recently has he turned his attention to picture books. When you look at his portfolio, you see the sheer range of his style. Now look at The Legend of Gravity and notice what it is that he’s doing with the art. Characters are simplified down to their most essential parts. The brushstrokes suggest whole human beings with as few strokes as possible. Here he has to also show movement and action on the page. The basketball here can’t just feel normal. It has to be just the littlest bit otherworldly to keep up with the text. It’s not a finely honed, highly detailed form of painting, which I dare say is what makes it work as well as it does. It’s like when you have students in an art class do rapid sketches. You’re getting the movement in the figures with as few lines as possible. That’s the feeling I get from Mr. Palmer’s work in this book. Quick strokes. Quicker subject matter.
Tall tales had their day. When I was in elementary school, I think we did a whole unit on them. They were considered important. A great American tradition of some sort. Imagine how much more pertinent they’d feel to kids today if someone was able to tie tall tales into liar’s tales and then into modern exaggerations. Exaggeration makes for good storytelling. The bigger the tale, the better the listen, but why should figures from the past get all the fun? Thanks to books like The Legend of Gravity we can pay homage to the past while making books that kids would actually want to read today. That say something they can not only understand but also root for. Whatever it is that Charly Palmer’s doing here, I’m on board for it. Can’t wait to see what’s coming next.
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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