Quote of the Month

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

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Beginning At The Ending

Have you ever noticed when there is only one of anything left, the value, real or imagined, increases?  When you think you will never enjoy the sensory experience of tasting, touching, smelling, seeing or hearing it again, it's as if there is nothing quite as important as tasting, touching, smelling, seeing or hearing that one thing as much as possible.  Without a doubt you find yourself wondering why you waited until there was only one remaining before you gave it the attention it so richly deserves.

Perhaps this is why we need to protect and enjoy every detail of our lives, each and every day.  The Very Last Castle (Abrams Books for Young Readers, October 9, 2018) debut picture book written by Travis Jonker with pictures by Mark Pett asks us to follow one very brave little girl.  Not only does she ask questions, but she decides to find her own answers.

In the middle of a small town stood something
you might not expect.

A castle. 

This castle is distinctive.  It is the very last castle.  For reasons unknown, no one has been inside nor has anyone left the castle. There is a guard at the top of a tower, unmoving and watchful.

One day Ibb, a girl living in this town with the very last castle decides to drop a stone in the moat.  The guard does not budge.  Sounds come from the castle, snapping, thudding and hissing.  These sounds cause people in Ibb's circle of friends to speculate on what might be inside the castle.

Autumn turns into winter.  The guard never leaves his station.  What could he possibly be sheltering? With the shift in seasons to spring, Ibb grows bold.  Another stone is dropped in the moat.  The guard moves.  The next day, she crosses the moat in a small boat and knocks on the very large door.  One of those three sounds scares her into leaving as fast as she can.

Soon an invitation is delivered to Ibb.  Her presence is requested inside the castle.  She is warned to not honor this summons.  Regardless, she walks to the castle and enters after the drawbridge is dropped.  Amazing answers to questions are revealed.  An agreement benefiting many is reached.

We are immediately intrigued after reading the first two pages.  Travis Jonker begins with not only the unexpected but a mystery.  We have questions.  With four words he opens the door to answers.

Then there was Ibb.

This child's curiosity challenges her to be courageous despite her teacher, friend and grandfather's speculations about what is being guarded inside the castle by someone no one has met.

Each time she decides to be brave Travis uses a repeating phrase to bind the incidents together.  Sound effects play an important role; three different sets plus two.  Dialogue is skillfully blended with the narrative.  All these techniques work wonderfully to create a storytelling rhythm.  Here are two passages.

The next morning, Ibb walked
past the castle.  She stopped and
looked up at the tower.

No guard.

Ibb had an idea.

She floated across the
moat, walked up to the
door, and, with all the strength she had,

When we look at the front, right, of the opened dust jacket we are introduced to a curious little girl and the shadowy figure of a guard on a tower top.  The one is already moving into a part of our heart.  Who can resist the shy smile, adorned backpack and cheerful clothing?  The falling leaves designate autumn as the season.  A careful look at the spine shows it covered with castle bricks.  A tiny figure of Ibb is pulling on the drawbridge lever below the title. An apple is placed above the title.  Why?

To the left, on the back, Ibb is standing in front of the castle door, having crossed the moat.  Her hand is raised as if to knock.  On the book case two different scenes are presented to readers.  One shows a determined Ibb walking toward her destination.  On the left we get our first look at the guard when he is not in the tower.  The two tiny images on the spine of the jacket have been removed.

The opening and closing endpapers are a darker shade of the blue in Ibb's dress.  Mark Pett renders his pictures using pen and ink and watercolor.  They span double pages and full pages.  Readers will want to notice the facial expressions on all the characters, especially their eyes.

Many of the illustrations are in full color but other visuals have limited color.  This not only elevates the pacing but draws our attention to the most important details in any given scene.  Sometimes a portion of an image will be in full color but other elements will have limited color.  The townspeople with the exception of Ibb's teacher, Miss Wicks, her friend, Alex and her grandfather, are never shown in full color.

One of my many favorite illustrations is when the story introduces us to Ibb.  She is striding across a pale green field with a few delicate flowers still blooming.  A tiny butterfly comes from the gutter.  Ibb moves with arms swinging from left to right.  She wears her yellow boots, red and white striped stockings, blue dress and polka-dotted long-sleeved shirt.  Her green backpack is covered with her favorite things. Her eyes are closed in contemplation.  The background is a crisp white.

When you read The Very Last Castle with words by Travis Jonker and pictures by Mark Pett for the first time, you are compelled to read it again, then and there.  You realize Travis and Mark have not only entertained you but guided you toward valuable life lessons.  You need to read this book often and share it with others as often as possible.  I highly recommend this for your personal and professional collections.

To learn more about Travis Jonker and Mark Pett and their other work, please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.  Travis has another site here.  Both Travis and Mark have accounts on Twitter.  At the publisher's website you can view interior images.  The cover reveal with a chat between Travis and Mark is at School Library JournalTravis has two great posts about this title on his blog, 100ScopeNotes; here and here. (The comic explaining the story behind this story is super.)  There is also a post full of Twitter tweets from Mark Pett about his illustrative process.  Travis wrote an article for the Nerdy Book Club about being an author.  Travis's friend, Scholastic's Ambassador of School Libraries, John Schumacher, celebrates this book at his blog, Watch. Connect. Read., today.  I went to Travis's event on Saturday, October 6, 2018 at McLean & Eakin, a book shop in Petoskey, Michigan.  To hear him read his story aloud was simply the best.

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