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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
by Leo Landry
Houghton Mifflin,(September 2007)
The moon shined brightly as Nicholas readied for bed.
This is what he could hear:
his baby sister crying in her crib,
the dog barking to be let out,
and the radio blaring on the front porch.
Even the noises from his neighborhood floated through his open window.
Too loud, thought Nicholas, holding his ears, and I'm NOT going to bed!
In that moment, Nicholas made a decision.
--Space Boy, by Leo Landry, p. 1-4
We all need some alone time, sometimes--some time away from noise and people and distractions. This is especially true for sensitive and creative people. After Nicholas hears his baby sister crying, his dog barking, and the radio blaring all at the same time, Nicholas decides that the world is too noisy. He wisely finds a way to get some quiet for himself--by taking a trip to the moon. On the moon he has a picnic, walks around, remembering the people he loves, and then goes back to find everyone more quiet and peaceful, which helps him be ready for bed. Many readers will be able to identify with Nicholas becoming overwhelmed by noise and wanting some time and space to himself--and the creative way he finds that space, through his imagination, is a wonderful way to inspire both finding quiet and using one's imagination.
Landry's (Eat Your Peas, Ivy Louise; The Snow Ghosts) story is a gentle fantasy with layers of reality and a nice sense of language and rhythm woven throughout the text. Landry uses repetition of the sounds Nicholas could hear--or not hear--three times overtly in the story, in the opening, middle, and closing, which brings a lovely sense of balance, rhythm, and rightness, and once more, less overtly, when Nicholas is thinking about the people and animals that made those sounds. The second time Landry repeats the sounds, he repeats them with a twist--what Nicholas could NOT hear. I love that twist; it underscores just how overwhelming--and important--the sounds are.
The repetition is not only pleasing and soothing, but also works well as a catalyst throughout the story, and is an emotional thread that Nicholas (and the reader) respond to--first as an irritant or overwhelming noise, then as something he can't hear when he has his peace and quiet, then as positive memories that make him want to go back home, and finally, back home, as quiet and peaceful, positive once more.
Landry creates a real sense of calm and peace when Nicholas is on the moon, through the well-chosen words and phrases such as, "How nice," (about the quiet), "delicious," "beautiful blue earth," and "silent and peaceful." The sense of calm and peace is also created through the fun of Nicholas' imagination--the weightlessness of his tomato slices as they fly off his sandwich--and through the familiarity and soothing quality of what he chooses to do on the moon--have a picnic, take a walk on the moon, silent and alone.
Landry then moves the reader into a shift, as things start to remind Nicholas of what drove him away earlier--his sister, his dog, his parents listening to the blaring radio--only now he's reminded of positive memories of them, and of the good times he had with his family and dog. Those memories and associations help convince both Nicholas and the reader that he really does want to go back home to earth to be with his family, and they help us believe in his deciding to go back home when he gets to his ship. Landry also has Nicholas realize that the moon that he is on is the same moon that he and his family watch from the porch, which brings some poignancy to the story.
Although I love the shift that Landry created, it felt a little too long, and I also thought that while two connections were very clear (his sister, his dog), the third (his family sitting on the porch); in the beginning, this is stated as the radio blaring on the front porch, not his family sitting on the porch in the moonlight (it's missing the sound connection, the radio). Some readers may not be able to make the connection at first, and those connections are what helps bring the pleasing feeling of repetition and the emotional working through of an issue, so for me, it creates a small gap. Still, the other two are quite satisfying on their own.
Nicolas' certainty at what to do in order to have his rocket get to the moon--he knew exactly what buttons to press--fits a child's imagination and sense of being in control of their own play, as does Nicholas having a picnic on the moon.
The ending wraps up nicely; Nicholas, having had the quiet he needs, goes back home to find that everyone else is quiet now, too (although his parents are still listening to the radio, but it is "listening", not a "blaring" radio). Nicholas then feels ready for bed, and after his parents tell him good night (without criticizing him for being up past his bedtime), he realizes how good it feels to be home. This brings an uplifting, cozy feeling to the ending.
Landry's watercolor-and-pencil illustrations are simple and child-like, with gentle colors. Backgrounds are often washes of one color. Many illustrations are contained within rectangles with rounded borders, while others bleed right to the edge of the page or take up an entire spread, bringing visual variety. The illustrations have a slightly flat feel to them, without depth or gradation of hue, which gives them a child-like feeling.
Landry visually distinguishes between Nicholas' imaginative visit to the moon--all of the illustrations during his visit bleed right to the edges of the pages, taking up the entire page or full spreads--and his time at home--the illustrations when he's at home are smaller than the entire page and are contained within borders if they're a scene, or smaller, free-floating illustrations paired with the text.
Landry pairs the tone of the text with the illustrations well; on the moon, where everything is quiet, this quiet is underscored by how small Nicholas is on the moon, alone, with small mountains around him and great wide open space, and the vastness of the star-lit sky above him.
There's a lovely spread that creates a balance between the two worlds as Nicholas starts off on his trip, both contained within a circle; on the left-hand page, we see the earth through the round porthole, and Nicholas' space-helmet taking up part of the round porthole, creating both a crescent-moon and a full-moon effect, and on the opposite page, we see the full, bright round moon, surrounded by sky.
When Nicholas is on the moon, the earth is visible in almost every illustration, which helps remind the reader that home is there, waiting.
Landry includes some fun outer-space touches in Nicholas' bedroom in the opening illustrations, which young readers will enjoy spotting, such as Nicholas' miniature spaceship lamp, his spaceship helmet on the dresser, and a painting of the moon and stars above his bed. Even after Nicholas arrives home, the moon continues to be brought into the text and illustrations, as he steps onto moonlit grass, he tells his parents he's ready for bed (and in the illustration, Nicholas appears within a circle which is bright yellow, like the moon), and the moon appears above his parents sitting on the porch, as well as above his head (in the painting above him) when he goes to sleep. This reinforces the quiet place that Nicholas found on the moon.
Space Boy encourages the reader to use their imagination, to find a quiet place of their own, and to come back when they're ready. Do you know a sensitive person, or a child who loves outer space? Give them a copy of this book. Recommended!
-Added December 16, 2007
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