We save things. Some people save more than others. The most precious of these saved things usually represents a memory we choose to remember for as long as we can. Some families pass on items from one generation to the next. There are always stories attached to them.
It seems most children like to tell tales about themselves and hear those of others. They know instinctively as Kate DiCamillo, author and National Ambassador for Children's Literature 2014-2015, says stories connect us. Tell Me A Tattoo Story (Chronicle Books, April 12, 2016) written by Alison McGhee with illustrations by Eliza Wheeler allows readers to share in the warmth of a family evening.
You wanna see my tattoos?
A little guy tugs on his father's shirt eager to see the pictures inked on his skin. It's a frequent request the father enjoys fulfilling. The first selected tattoo represents the father's favorite book and all the times he listened to his mother read it aloud.
Moving from his shoulder to the inside of his wrist are two words rather than a picture. The boy's father never wants to forget how his dad lived his life. An intricate floral tattoo recalls his meeting a pretty girl. When his son wants to know why she was so pretty and if he has met her, his dad's reply is certain to make you smile.
As a fourth tattoo is shown, the dad remembers a journey taking him far from home for a long time. Now and then, it is a hot land, a foreign land, across an ocean. The final tattoo is small with three numbers and three words.
It's been placed on the dad's chest near his heart. As the two converses the boy declares the tattoo he cherishes more than the others. It's at this point the father's shares a secret.
As surely as if she had written the words once upon a time, Alison McGhee has our attention with her first sentence, a question. We want to see the tattoos too. What do they look like? What do they represent? We become the little man. Having the father as the sole speaker reinforces this feeling.
As each portion of the narrative (and the tattoos) is revealed to readers we realize they signify milestones in the child's father's life. They are the foundation for what will be become the boy's life story. Here is a sample passage.
This one, well, this one's from my favorite book that my mom used to read to me.
Did she read it to me over and over and over?
She sure did.
When unfolding and opening the matching dust jacket and book case we get a sense of familial love and a kind of elegance. The golden yellow used in the rays is a part of every single image. Sometimes it is a pale, tiny spot color and other times it draws us directly into the picture. It's a soft glow of light, a radiating of memories. The exquisite details on the tattoos appear throughout the book.
On the back, to the left, on the same background color, a white dove is flying carrying a sprig of olive branch. The opening and closing endpapers are awash in a blend of the tattoos and other elements from the story. The same palette as shown on the jacket and case is used here. On the title page Eliza Wheeler features the family's home in the foreground at night with the city in the background in silhouette.
Rendered in India ink with dip pens and watercolors all the images span two pages. Delicate lines shape the elements in the pictures. With every reading you discover new precious pieces working to create a marvelous whole.
One of my favorite illustrations is for the first tattoo. On the left both the father and his son are facing readers. The father, smiling, looks at his son as he pulls back a portion of his shirt to get a better look at the tattoo. On the right, crossing the gutter to the left, the father as a little boy is sitting in his mother's lap beneath a clothes line outside. His mother, wearing an apron with pockets holding clothes pins and a shirt flung over her shoulder, is holding a book with him reading aloud. Baskets of clothes are to the right and left of them. A breeze is blowing the clothes already on the line and the surrounding wildflowers. Behind them is the farm house, fields of corn and the barn with a silo.
Tell Me A Tattoo Story written by Alison McGhee with illustrations by Eliza Wheeler is a heartwarming title brimming with love; a love of stories and of a nightly family ritual. Readers will thoroughly enjoy not only what the tattoos depict but moving through the bedtime preparations. You will want to have this on your personal and professional shelves. The end, like all wonderful books, will have you going back to the beginning so you can experiences it all over again.
To learn more about Alison McGhee and Eliza Wheeler please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites. Alison McGhee is interviewed via Skype at Take Two. It's a wonderful podcast about the spark behind the story. Eliza Wheeler wrote about this title and the process at Picture Book Builders. She was a guest at author, reviewer and blogger Julie Danielson's Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. You can find two additional interviews of Eliza Wheeler at Andrea Skyberg's site including a tour of her studio and Miss Marple's Musings.
UPDATE: Please stop by 100 Scope Notes hosted and written by teacher librarian and 2014 Caldecott Medal committee member, Travis Jonker to read his insightful review of this title.