Quote of the Month

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

Friday, April 22, 2016

Road Trip Remembered

We've all taken trips; some more eventful than others.  There are travels where the destination is everything.  We can't get there fast enough.  On the flip side there are places we can't wait to leave; home has never been sweeter.  In many cases the getting there is far better than the arrival.  The best kind of excursion is a fascinating combination of transportation of choice, stops and starts full of unexpected, funny surprises, a much-anticipated journey's end, and a safe, satisfying return.

Without a doubt, from the dawn of mankind, it seems children's DNA has been wired for them to utter a single familiar phrase during a trek by car.  Certainly my sister and I must have said it at an early age because all our outings, short or long, included fun packs put together by my mom to keep us happily busy from start to finish.  In his newest title, Are We There Yet? (Little, Brown and Company, April 12, 2016) Caldecott Medal winner (The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend) Dan Santat takes road trips to a whole new extraordinary level.

The car trip to visit Grandma is always exciting!
But after the first hour,
it can feel like an eternity.

Thinking about all the miles and hours ahead can be far removed from a child's definition of a good time.  In fact this boy's mind is so turned off and tuned out, it starts to wander.  And that is when the fun begins in earnest.  

He needs to look out his window, right now!  Left up your head and see what your wide-eyed parents are seeing.  The highway has changed into a desert filled with horses, their riders and an old locomotive fueled by coal with a cow-catcher on the front.  Next the boy is feeling a bit under the weather and with good reason.  Somehow the car has been snagged by the plank on a pirate ship.  

With every utterance proclaiming total boredom and let's face it, every excuse in the books for stopping, the scenery outside the car alters.  The child's moaning about the monotony is causing them to time travel; back and back, farther and farther until a resounding roar grabs his attention.  Good golly H. G. Wells, it's a Tyrannosaurus Rex!

A game of throw and catch enables the boy to start noticing and participating in the vistas outside the car.  It's a wild adventure until characters from every possible past end up with the family in a startling twist of hours, days, weeks, months and years.  Trying to give Grandma her birthday present has been the most amazing adventure yet.  

When the marvelous mind of Dan Santat ventures into the realm of "what-if" readers are guaranteed of an exuberant experience.  His finely honed sense of humor is apparent in each and every sentence; so is his profound wisdom as the story comes to a close.  Punctuation supplies pacing in the impeccable mix of dialogue and narration.  Here is a sample passage.

Hours feel like days.
I feel sick.
Days feel like months.
My butt hurts.

No one who sees the front of this dust jacket will be able to resist picking it up.  The design astutely gives us a glimpse of the normal drive with the astonishing results above the title phrase spoken by the boy which in turn neatly divides the two images.  What will have readers ready to open the cover, in addition to finding all the answers to questions formed by the top dinosaur escapade, is the look on the boy's and his mom's faces.  To the left, on the back, Santat takes us to the Sphinx.  Car tracks lead to the stopped vehicle.  Mom is in pirate attire.  Dad is looking at a map dressed as an astronaut.  A photographer robot beeps out the ISBN.  The boy with his monkey is slightly disgusted.  The book case is utterly perfect; the present carried by the boy.  And once you read this you will agree the entire book is a gift to readers.

The opening and closing endpapers are like stop motion frames of film.  There are thirty-six illustrations on each set of pages showing us the progression of a day first from darkness to dawn to the heat of the day with the sun moving across the yellow sky and then twilight to late night as the moon rises and sets among the stars.  The verso, dedication and titles pages become the beginning of the story.

Santat's pictures are a masterful blend of panels with large black frames and large pictures, edge to edge across two pages, placed on matte-finished paper.  Rendered in pencil, crayon, watercolor, ink and Adobe Photoshop the illustrations, in a stroke of genius, require us to turn the book around reading it backward (forward) as time moves backward in the story.  We are true participants.

You have to stop and look at each visual.  The details work as enhancements and extensions of the tale, telling us what the text does not.  (Be sure to look for Easter eggs.)  The expressions on the parent's faces are hilarious.  When the boy first discovers what is happening and sees the dinosaur you will feel exactly what he feels.  

One of my favorite illustrations spans across two pages.  It is a more elaborate depiction of all the persons from the past riding the dinosaur as they are on the front dust jacket.  Everyone is having the time of their lives except for the parents.  As a background Santat has a montage of eight sepia-toned snapshots from the past; everyone as ecstatic as those in the full color ride in the foreground.  

Are We There Yet? written and illustrated by Dan Santat reminds us to let ourselves be free enough to savor every second of every day.  He connects us to his characters with classic words and behaviors so we can laugh at and with them and at ourselves.  Share the happiness of this story as often as you can with everyone you can.  

To learn more about Dan Santat and his other books and illustrative work please follow the link to his website attached to his name.  At the publisher's website they have provided a link to a Road Trip Activity Kit. (My mom would have loved this.)  Dan Santat chats with teacher librarian Matthew C. Winner on All The Wonders podcast, episode 249.  On the podcast page is a link to Santat's Instagram account where you can view all his back-in-time promotional pictures.  Enjoy the book trailer.

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