Review of the Day: Pina by Elif Yemenici, translated by Sydney Wade
After 9/11 happened, American publishers were faced with a dilemma. How much to put in book form? How soon? Over the years that followed, a number of titles were released, but none were quite as touching and clever as the Caldecott Award winning The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordecai Gerstein. It succeeded perhaps because it acknowledged the tragedy, but didn’t make it its focus. Other national events, good and bad, have rendered similar results. When something big happens there is a pause, some fine but not great books come out, and then something tangentially related that’s just about brilliant comes out. It’s been more than two years, as I write this, since the COVID-19 pandemic forced us all to shelter in place. And, as might be expected, we’ve seen a number of picture books discuss it in some way. From the blatant to the obscure, they vary. Now Pina a little picture book coming out of Turkey, could be about any number of things. Yet for me, and for a fair number of my children’s librarian colleagues, it seems pretty clearly about lockdown, anxiety, mental health, and a world out there where anything could happen to you, good or bad. It is entirely possible that artist and author Elif Yemenici never intended this little tale, about a cat boy with big eyes and even bigger fears, to be about anything more than a trip for cheese on a sunny day. However, for many of us, parents of children who saw their anxieties spike over the last few years, Pina is a balm and a comfort. A gentle reminder that no matter how bad things may seem, there is room in this world for both the snugness of home, and the beauty of the wider world.
Pina is the kind of creature that likes everything just so. A tiny warm house. Cozy blankets. Good books to read. If he had his way he’d stay in his little home forever without ever having to set foot outdoors. Unfortunately, one day he discovers that he’s almost out of his favorite cheese. Food connoisseur that he is, Pina worries and frets about all the horrible things that could happen to him if he left the safe confines of his home. At last, necessity outweighs anxiety, and off he goes. At first, it’s just as terrifying as he feared, but when a small act of kindness cuts through his worries, he realizes that maybe there are reasons to go outside as well as inside. After all, “the stories most worth telling rarely start at home.”
As a parent of children that were confined indoors for long periods of time during the early days of the COVID pandemic, I have personally witnessed the anxiety that can strike a child used to the familiar. There’s a large part in all of us that would prefer to stick with what we know and love over what is unfamiliar and unexpected. Breaking through our comfort zones can be an act of rebellion in a way. What’s remarkable about Pina is that the book can be read any number of ways. If you wish to read it in such a way that Pina himself has anxiety, it certainly lends itself in that direction. If, instead, you want to read it just as someone stuck in their ways, just needing a little nudge in the right direction, that works too. Pina, as he appears on the page, embodies physically both old and young aspects. His habits (and album choices for that matter) are definitely Generation X. But his eyes? His big yellow eyes, so wide and scared and, maybe a little bit, hopeful. They’re young eyes. The art supports the text and the text supports the art. Altogether, it’s a marvelous example of what the best picture books are capable of doing.
Yemenici makes it even more difficult for herself by mixing up her media. The home is done with models, but when Pina steps out into the city and leaves his cozy abode, the world outside his door is drawn. The people are drawings. The city, sky, and sea are all drawn. The reason for this is quite clear. Pina’s home is the most real to the reader. We’re seeing the world through his eyes, and outside everything seems two-dimensional and unreal. His home, in contrast, is three-dimensional and filled with little nooks and crannies. You just want to dive under that comfy comforter of his and sleep for a long long time as the rain plays against the windowpanes. This clever method of removing not just Pina but the reader as well from the outdoor scenes gives the whole book a certain sense of danger and separation that might be difficult to attain through words alone. It’s a technique that serves the storytelling, which should always be the ultimate goal in a picture book.
Modelwork (or “handcraft figures” as Yemenici’s website calls them) is not simply a case of creating cute mini record covers and delicate teacups for teeny tiny hands (though that is part of it). It’s also about lighting and photography. You might create the loveliest little dollhouse-sized scenes in the world, but unless you know how to wield a lens or two, no one’s going to be able to properly appreciate your work. Allow me to give you an example. In one particularly striking image in this book, Yemenici chooses to make clear visually what a big deal it is that Pina doesn’t have any cheese, creating this marvelous composition with a very narrow depth of field. This scene is the inciting incident that sets the whole plot into action. In the shot you get a fair number of food products (including the cutest miniature water bottle you ever did see) alongside what is clearly a plate filled only with cheese crumbs. The spotlight, as it were, is on these crumbs. A darkness surrounds everything else, with Pina’s large woeful eyes, a little out of focus, staring at the place where the cheese should be. Like a good film, the lighting and lens work is doing a great deal of the emotional heavy lifting. Even if you opened this book to this page and didn’t read a word, you’d know it was a tragic scene. A tragic cheeseless scene.
I scouted about on the internet in the hopes that perhaps an English language translation of an interview with Turkish creator Elif Yeemenici might exist somewhere. Maybe she could explain precisely when she created the art for Pina and what the impetus was. And though I did find a truly delightful video of her creating the props, lighting, settings and scenes, no interview was forthcoming. No matter. You needn’t look any further than Pina’s great big wide eyes to know that this story came from a place near and dear to the illustrator’s heart. One thing I particularly liked about the book was the fact that at the end Pina hasn’t made a friend. Not really. Picture books are often full of raising children’s expectations about how easy friendship is. You just walk into a playground and BLAM! Friend made. Actually, I take it back. I guess Pina kind of does make a friend in this story. He makes friends with a beautiful, unpredictable world. When he sits in that last shot on a bench watching the sea, it’s as if the world is just sitting there right alongside him. And look, no one’s going to tell you that this book will cure your child of their fears or their anxieties. But with its honest look at the essential goodness of the outside world, it’s not a terrible choice for the kid that could identify with what Pina feels. Looking unlike almost any other books for kids out there, Pina is a little treasure worth discovering. Bring it into your home and keep it safe from harm.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Videos: For an utterly charming video that looks at the creation of Pina (and contains both cute cats and some clever stop animation) please go here.
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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