Oct/Nov 2004 Book Reviews

Picture Books

Reviewed by Colleen Mondor

Stephen Parlato. The World That Loved Books.
Simply Read Books. 2003. 31 pp.

* * * *

This book has to stand out as one of the more unusual picture books I have come across in a very long time. Artist Stephen Parlato is known for his unique work with collage which culminates in recognizable shapes (faces, animals, etc.) formed of dozens or even hundreds of smaller and equally recognizable other shapes. In The World That Loved Books he takes his art to a truly gorgeous place, giving young readers a world where everyone loved reading so much that they became what they read. A rabbit reading about turtles became turtles, a woman reading about angels became choirs of angels, a dragon reading about treasure became a treasure of gold and diamonds and pearls. The pictures are the true dazzlers here, showing a dragon made of many jewels, a man's profile of writhing snakes, a tyrannosaurus rex built of frogs and salamanders. Each page give you something even more beautiful to stare at, and makes you even more impressed by Parlato's amazing talent.

The coolest thing about this book though is that it succeeds on entrancing so many different age levels. The youngest child will enjoy the challenge of finding so many different animals to point out and examine. The story's fantasy aspect will attract early readers, who are discovering their own fascination with books. But anyone, any age, who appreciates unusual and impressive art will love this book. It perhaps would succeed most of all with the child who exhibits his or her own unique artistic talent. This is a book of the imagination for the reader who wishes to immerse himself in beautiful possibility. And it doesn't hurt that my two-year old thinks it's the bomb!


John Marsden and Shaun Tan. The Rabbits.
Simply Read Books. 2003. 29 pp.

* * * * *

I have no idea what age to recommend this book for, as it appears on the surface to be one thing but upon reading is most definitely something else. I loved it, in the way that you love anything that is deep and intense and so utterly smart that it staggers you out of your complacent little chair and demands to be considered. This is not a bedtime story, it is a stay up late and talk about and think about kind of book. I still can't stop thinking about it, and I read it the first time weeks ago. What bothers me most of all is that it was only dumb luck that I found it at all, as it never seemed to find the huge audience it deserves in the U.S. In Australia it won a boatload of awards soon after publication, which makes me all the more impressed by that country's book community.

Okay, so what is this rabbit book about? Both the author and illustrator are from Australia, and The Rabbits is a stark primer on colonialism, particularly as it affected their country. The story as written is basic and simple: "The rabbits came many grandparents ago. At first we didn't know what to think. They looked a bit like us. There weren't many of them. Some were friendly." Any student of history knows where this is going, as succeeding pages reveal that more rabbits came, they built houses, their food made the indigenous population sick, their animals scared them, the rabbits were unstoppable and the two sides ultimately fought; the rabbits won. Most terrifying though are the pages that focus more on Australia's aboriginal history: "They ate our grass. They chopped down our trees and scared away our friends... and stole our children." In the end the rabbits are everywhere, with the final page asking, "Who will save us from the rabbits?" And you know that this is history and nothing, no one, will save them. The rabbits won, they even won the children.

Marsden's words alone would make this book impressive but coupled with the fantastic drawings of Shaun Tan, it elevates to a higher level. Tan's rabbits are militaristic and severe, all harsh lines and dominant poses. They are always drawn with their machines and uniforms making clear that the rabbits depict a technological society while the softer native animals are pictured close to Earth, standing on hills or perched on trees. The rabbits construct large houses, great factories, huge farms and the natives are left with less and less space to call their own. Finally, shockingly, the rabbit's flying machines are pictured with hundreds of children being pulled through the air, clinging to box kites for safety, staring at their parents trapped below on the land, unable to save them. Then there is only a bare and brown land and pages of increasing darkness. No one will save them from the rabbits.

The tragic story of Australia (or any native people who suffered a similar nightmare) is hard to convey to younger children. This is a sad and somewhat scary book and I don't think that anyone other than a child's individual parents could decide at what age it is most appropriate. I do know that if your child is old enough to understand that there is a larger world outside their door then it is time to consider reading The Rabbits. And for any student of history or art, this is a glorious piece of literature. It quite simply blew me away, and I don't know how better to recommend it than to tell you that.


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