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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
by Scott E. Franson
Roaring Brook Press,(April 2007)
Have you ever wanted to have some toasty warmth on a cold winter day, or some refreshing cold on a hot summer day? I sure have--and so has the girl in Un-Brella. Only this girl brings warmth to her winter and cold to her summer in a very magical way. In this wordless book, the young girl uses her magic un-brella to create a path of pure summer on a snowy winter day, and a path of snowy winter on a summer's day. Her un-brella only changes the weather beneath the canopy of the un-brella (and the direction it's pointed in), and only when it's open--which makes it an intimate magical playtime for the girl. So on a cold, winter day, she dresses in her bathing suit and flippers, and takes along a bottle of sunscreen--which will have readers wondering what she's doing until they see her open her un-brella and see the sun, flowers, grass, and insects that pop up. Un-Brella is a magical flight of imagination, beautifully designed, and a real feel-good book; it's pure delight. Un-Brella was nominated for the 2007 Cybils awards.
Franson piques reader curiosity by the second spread; the first spread shows the young girl peering out at the cold, snowy day, and the second spread shows her reaching for her summer outfits and choosing a bathing suit. By the next spread, reader tension and curiosity increases, as the girl is clearly ready for an outing to a beach or somewhere in the sun, and then we're faced with astonishment as the girl goes outside in the snow, dressed in only flippers, a bathing suit, and sun glasses, carrying her un-brella. This tension builds up nicely, and is immediately released into a feeling of wonder as the girl opens her un-brella and all is revealed--summer pops up beneath its canopy, warming her and the earth. There's also a great foreshadowing in the early spreads, with photos on the wall showing the snowman in the fall, spring, and summer, as well as the winter.
Franson creates a great sense of play and fun, showing the path that the girl took through the snow by the green summer path she leaves, and through having her engage in fun, magical play such as bathing in small pond with her inflatable toy, a goldfish, and a penguin that happens by, while the rest of the world is blanketed in snow. Later, winter moves into spring, then summer, and then the girl is back with her un-brella, bringing winter fun to the hot summer, creating snow angels, skating on the pond, sliding down the hill, and creating snow men, while all around her summer blossoms.
The second-to-last spread shows the girl building a snowman in her living room, while outside it is still summer--exactly the kind of fun many children would love to have. Her cat hiding his head beneath her bed in dismay adds a comical sense of fun. And the very last spread shows it snowing inside the girl's house, with the snowman behind her, while outside it rains, bringing a wonderful sense of magic. The girl looking out at the spring rain makes the reader wonder what fabulous things her un-brella will do next; it brings the delicious sense that the fun and magic isn't over yet.
Franson has a background in graphic design and illustration, and that influence is clear here; Franson's illustrations use a stylized design and beautiful palette. The illustrations have the lovely feel of paper collage, and cut-out paper with layers, though they are computer generated. Shadows behind objects, such as snow flakes and sunflowers, add to the feeling of layers and visual depth in a flat, paper-layered way. Other shadows, such as those on the snowmen and on the bushes seem more three dimensional, and this mixture is visually appealing and fun. A gradation of color is used which adds depth.
Franson uses bright, soft colors, bringing a feeling of happiness and play, and the warmth of summer. The same colors are echoed throughout the book, which creates continuity. The splotches of summer that the girl's un-brella create really pop on the page, as the bright green grass and tall flowers greatly contrast the white and light-violet snow. The girl always stands out in each illustration, with her bright pink bathing suit, glasses, and flippers in the summer, and bright pink coat and purple hat and boots in the winter, as well as the trail of summer or winter that she leaves behind her, making her a visual focal point.
There are so many things to explore and examine in the illustrations, such as the ah-ha details that foreshadow or hint at the story (including a snow globe that contains both a snow man and huge flowers); the girl's own illustrations that tie in characters; the rich patterns; and the recurring characters. You can look for hours and still discover more to look at, such as the way some of the patterns are layered, and almost appear to change if you look at them closely, like the tiny pink flowered wallpaper on the girl's wall, that also has paler yellow flowers around some of the pink flowers, and then pale green flowers around both of those which join multiple pink flowers together.
Observant readers will enjoy following some of the characters that appear throughout the book in different ways, such as the small white rabbit that first appears in the opening spread (along with bunny tracks in the snow), then appears as a drawing on the girls wall. The rabbit joins the girl in some of her play, then appears older, fatter, and brown in the summer, and finally appears as a stuffed animal in the girl's room near the end. Other recurring characters are a penguin, a goldfish, and the girl's cat, though the cat appears only in the opening and closing illustrations, and shows a funny dismay over the girl's use of her magical un-brella. These recurring characters are not only fun to spot, they also bring a sense of continuity.
Almost everything in the illustrations has a pattern on it (though you have to look closely to see some of them)--from the flowered wallpaper, to the snow-flake patterned snow, to the dotted, multi-toned bull rushes. The patterns are different and varied, each one truly fitting the object, such as diamond and criss-cross patterns on the tree trunks that give a great sense of bark. Even the branches of the trees are formed in a pattern, as well as the leaves and flowers on the trees and bushes, and each tree or bush on a page has a different pattern or set of flowers and leaves that puff out in a ball-shape, looking full and almost ready to touch, and each beautiful in their own way. The patterns bring visual interest, add a sense of texture, and add to the feeling of magic and fantasy. They make the book a visual treat. The one distracting thing I found in the book was the size of the girl's eyes; they are huge and overly round in her face, and slightly mar my enjoyment of her. Otherwise, the design is exceptional.
Franson creates a sense of time and seasons passing midway through the book, moving from winter on the left, into spring, and then summer on the right, moving from snow and bare branches, to buds and small leaves, to flowers, green apples that turn red, and larger leaves. This moves the reader from the winter into the summer, and prepares the reader for what the girl will do next--appear in her winter clothes in the summer warmth with her closed un-brella--all ready to open it. Every spread is a delight, and there is so much to look at. One small thing I wish for is some variation in the layout, the spreads, to tell the story, but that is minor.
Un-Brella beautifully captures the wonderful imagination and sense of play and fun that children can have, and the idea that anything is possible and that magic can exist--something that is so much a part of many young children's minds. Un-Brella is beautiful on so many levels--story wise, visually, and design-wise. It makes me feel good just to look at it, every single time I open the book. Highly recommended.
-Added December 29, 2007
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