Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Just A Trip To The Corner Grocer

When your elementary school is only a few blocks from your home in a quiet little town, you walk home every day for lunch.  You and your younger sister never seem to enjoy the meal as quickly as your mom wishes you would.  To keep you eating, she tells you tales.  These are not the remembered narratives from books. These are stories she spins on the spot full of the unexpected, laughter inducing moments.

Decades later you still remember those tales told around the kitchen table. You've picked up the thread becoming a weaver of words yourself, as have your students.  There is a freedom, but also a unique sense of belonging, when you become part of the fabric of story.  When I began reading Neil Gaiman's new title, Fortunately, The Milk (Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers) with illustrations by Skottie Young, (Bloomsbury, UK edition with illustrations by Chris Riddell) it was as if a door had opened, a door where the past and the present could exist together.  It was a magical blending of remembered memories from my childhood with those of the here and now.

There was only orange juice in the fridge.

When your mom has left home for a conference presentation on lizards leaving explicit instructions with your dad, including the purchase of more milk, it is dismaying to realize there is currently none available for your cereal in the morning of the next day.  In the middle of wanting to suggest alternatives to said breakfast fare, it suddenly dawns on your father his tea will be lacking its usual dose of milk too.  Without further ado, he leaves you and your sister to quickly walk to the store to get what everyone wants and needs.

Regrettably your father does not return promptly.  What else can you eat?  What could have happened?  Finally, in walks dad with the milk and an outlandish explanation for his lateness.

Stepping outside the shop he hears a noise, looks up seeing a gigantic silver circle in the air. A beam of light transports him up to the interior of the craft populated by green blobs.  They make ridiculous demands to be met or the planet, as we know it, will be destroyed and remodeled.

Noticing an exit of sorts, amid their cries of not to open the door, Dad does, dropping him into the middle of the sea.  A bunch of scallywags lead by a Pirate Queen, from the eighteenth century, haul him out of the water to the deck of their ship. (The door did release a space-time continuum.)  Within minutes of his arrival, Dad is being forced to walk the plank, which he himself suggested they make him do.  All manner of dangerous creatures are swimming in the water below.

As he is about to step to his doom, a rope ladder falls from a hot air balloon. To Dad's surprise it is manned by a talking stegosaurus, an inventor from the distant past and a distant planet.  Zooming back and forth between history and the future, the duo meet people living in a jungle looking for a human sacrifice to appease the volcanic god, Splod, colorful ponies, a flock...er...group of wumpires, a bowl filled with piranhas and galactic space police of a prehistoric nature.  In what can only be described as multiple, quirky twists and turns of events, the container of milk (and three small people who pop from the air) become major players in an comic but completely satisfying conclusion.  Readers along with the boy and his sister will be left wide-eyed and wondering.

By the bottom of the first page Neil Gaiman has your attention with the inclusion of a sibling experiment involving mushrooms in chocolate.  With each sentence, paragraph, we become more captivated by the introduction of dad's endearing personality traits.  Before we know it, we are alongside the brother and sister in the kitchen, listening to the story of madcap mishaps unfolding.

We are whooshed into a spacecraft, standing on the deck of a pirate ship, floating in the sky and through time in a hot air balloon, or trudging through a jungle toward a volcano.  As inconceivable as all these characters and events might seem, Gaiman, the consummate storyteller, fashions them, link by link, into a chain of hilarious possibility.  Several times during the course of the dad's retelling, the children voice questions and comments which only add to the overall appeal.  Repeatedly the phrase, fortunately, the milk, appears giving strength to the flow of the narrative.

As a reader and a collector of books, I knew I had to have both editions of this title.  The US edition is cleverly illustrated by cartoonist, Skottie Young.  His intricate line work, his interpretation of the storyline, is full of the the fantastic.  Exaggerated facial expressions on the characters enhance the emotional impact.

Varied in size his illustrations appear with every page turn, a careful blend with the text.  Readers eyes will savor the writing, then drink in the liveliness of the pictures.  My favorite is of his portrayal of this sentence:

And he went back to reading his paper.

The knowing look, the smile on the dad's face, sitting in his favorite plaid-covered chair, the dog resting by his side, is wonderful.

Chris Riddell, illustrator of the UK edition, gives an entirely new look to the title.  His drawings, his depiction of the characters, while as detailed as those of Young, heighten the sense of adventure beginning with the cover, carrying the rings of time-travel to the endpapers. Opposite the first page, his illustration foreshadows the events to come. Readers will not realize the significance of this until the end.

Rather than show the passage of time as the children are waiting their dad's return with a single double-page spread as Young does, he presents readers with a series of panels showing the son engaged in a variety of activities.  His pictures expertly convey the humor, the sense of marvelous magic, found in the tale.  A full-color four-page foldout of the angry volcano god, is a delightful surprise.

I have to say, all his illustrations of the dad are favorites.  Following the story's end the publishers have written a small note to readers.  This in turn, is followed by Riddell's naming of all the characters, providing full-body portraits of each.

Fortunately, The Milk penned with purpose by Neil Gaiman and pictured by Skottie Young and Chris Riddell, is sheer pleasure from beginning to end.  Not only do I highly recommend this book as a read aloud but readers need to see and enjoy both editions of this title.  It will encourage discussions about illustrator's perceptions of text especially the final wordless scene of each.  I would love to know their views about these visuals.

If you desire to know more about Neil Gaiman, Skottie Young or Chris Riddell follow the links to their respective websites embedded in their names in the post above.  I invite you to follow this link to the Bloomsbury website teacher's guide.  It links to this website loaded with extras for this title.  Here is the link to the HarperCollinsChildren'sBooks Browse Inside feature where you can view the first twenty-five pages.  Enjoy the videos below.

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