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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
Clara and Asha
Clara and Asha
by Eric Rohmann
Roaring Brook Press,(August 2005)
"Clara! Time for bed," my mom calls. But I'm not sleepy, so I open my window . . .
. . . and wait for Asha.
We met in the park.
And I brought Asha home.
--Clara and Asha, by Eric Rohmann, p. 2-7.
In this delightful fantasy, a stone fish comes to life and becomes a young girl's best friend. Asha, a giant fish, flies in through Clara's bedroom window when Clara's getting ready for bed. Clara tells us how she met Asha in the park (when Asha was part of a statue), and how Asha came home with her (following her through trees), played in the tub, and was introduced to all her stuffed-toy friends. Then Clara blows some soap bubbles, and floats up on one, out into the night sky with Asha, where they fly together until Clara's mom calls her in to bed. This is a beautiful, uplifting book with a feel-good reminder that we can be free in our dreams.
Rohmann's (The Cinder-Eyed Cats) brief first-person text helps move the story forward—though the beautiful illustrations may make the reader want to pause to take everything in. There is often one short sentence per spread, with the occasional two or three short sentences per spread. Rohmann has crafted deceptively simple text, but the text is carefully thought out; it never over-explains, and allows the illustrations to build on the text and add to the complete picture. The story text is written in simple statements, like facts, to relate what happened in Clara's own words, while the illustrations greatly expand on this, showing us Clara's viewpoint, a story more fantastic than you'd think from the text alone. This interplay between text and illustrations works well together, and adds believability to the story.
Humor is also created through the interplay between the text and the illustrations; the text is used like a straight-man, and the illustrations provide the funny expansion of the wry statements—such as Clara saying that she's waiting for her turn in the tub, and we see Asha frolicking in the tub, balancing things on her nose, even a toilet roll.
The text is episodic in parts, where Clara states how Asha helped her or joined her (became part of her Halloween costume, played with her in the snow), though it also has a beginning, a gentle climax (her mother calling her in to bed, so she has to stop playing with Asha) and a lovely resolution.
Rohmann has a good sense of timing, breaking up a sentence to give the reader the end of the sentence, like a surprise, on the next spread. There's a nice repetition of that technique, using it both at the beginning and the end of the book (the beginning break introduces Asha, and the end break introduces a new friend).
Three spreads, one after the other, are without text as Clara flies and plays with Asha in the night sky, and this adds to the sense of peacefulness and joy, and underscores the following sentence, giving it more power as Clara's mother tells her it's time for bed (which prompts Clara to say goodnight to Asha, while letting the reader know that she'll see Asha the next day).
The repetition of Clara's mom telling Clara it's time for bed in both the opening and the closing of the book brings the story together, and also gives the reader a sense that the nighttime play and flight occurred during that time.
Rohmann's exquisite oil paintings really make this book work; they bring all the magic, fantasy, and joy into the book, and tell so much more of the story than the text. But without the text, they would not be as funny, tell such a clear story, or bring as much enjoyment as the do. The illustrations are fantastical, and their wonder and beauty is made all the more so because the text is skillfully understated and does not describe the fantasy aspect of what occurs.
There is a magical quality to the illustrations, starting from the first page where Clara's soap bubbles float out the window and the reader gets a first glimpse of a gigantic fish in the sky, and ending on the very last page when another toy comes to life. The fantasy sequence of Clara blowing a soap bubble, then sitting on top of the bubble and delightedly flying up into the air is especially magical. The realistic paintings and the detail of everyday objects and setting help balance the blend of reality and fantasy, and make the fantasy seem all the more real and wonder-filled.
The humor in the illustrations adds to the happy feel of the book, such as the laugh-out-loud painting of Clara rolling the giant fish into a huge snowball—and Asha's fins, tail, and smiling head sticking out.
Rohmann's illustrations are gentle and reassuring, with smiling, friendly creatures; dreamy skies and backgrounds whose colors are blended; and soft edges and shadows. He uses muted colors, both warm and cool; calm blues, warm subdued browns, and soft pale yellows and greens appear in most illustrations, visually pulling the book together.
Clara always looks delighted, and Asha, especially, looks kind, playful, and huggable, with her big smile, friendly eyes, and gentle blue color (with darker blue stripes). One might not expect a gigantic fish to seem like a great cuddly friend, but Rohmann succeeds. Asha also appears protective; she comes up to catch Clara when Clara begins to fall from a burst bubble, and then flies with her. Asha changes size as needed, which makes her seem even more magical—she is huge when flying, large (but smaller) when in the bath, and very small (goldfish-size) when in the fish bowl. Rohmann also makes Asha truly looks like she's swimming through air, most especially in the forest scene where Asha's body curves around trees as she follows Clara and her bright red ball, as well as in the night-sky scenes.
Sophisticated readers will see that Asha first exists as a stone fish and becomes real through Clara's desire. In the last two spreads the reader gets a hint that Clara's new friend also comes to life from an inanimate object; in the second last spread, a friendly alligator shadow appears over Clara's bed, and a stuffed green alligator/dragon lies on Clara's floor. In the next and final spread, a large green alligator has come alive in Clara's room, and is clinging to her bedpost. On a second read through, readers may notice the alligator and dragon toys that her new friend may have come from, appear in many scenes—on the inner title page; on Clara's bed in the opening; in the tea party; and in the bath scene. All this gives the reader a sense that Clara's stuffed animals and anything else that appeals to her can come alive if she wants them to, and that she is never alone or lonely.
One thing that may put off some readers is that Clara's eyes are large black ovals without whites or pupils, similar to some anime illustrations. However, Clara remains a cute figure, and readers may come to like the look. The shape of her eyes is also reflected in some of her stuffed animals.
The illustrations really begin on the inside title page, where Clara is sitting blowing bubbles; this is continued in the opening spread where, although Clara is getting ready for bed, her bubbles keep flying up out the window. The illustrations consistently take up one and half pages, or sometimes the complete spread, with a thin border of white around three sides of the illustration, and a larger border where the text is. Some spreads show an enjoyable sequence of events in the same scene, such as Clara blowing bubbles and then flying up on one into the sky, and then flying with Asha, and Asha following Clara through the trees.
The visual repetition of some elements brings a sense of satisfaction, as well as a sense of rightness when they come into the story again, such as the soap bubbles that Clara uses in the inner title page and opening spread, that appear later in her night flying; the fish bowl in the opening spread that also appears in the tea party; the stuffed pig toy; and the dragon toy.
Rohmann makes good use of light and shadow; he often uses moonlight or house light to make Clara and Asha be the visual focus (especially during their night-sky adventures). Clara also stands out in each spread as she is often the brightest splash of color through her yellow pyjamas or light-colored tops, while hints of that color are blended into the closest objects and reflected back. Shadows are skillfully used to introduce new friends (such as Asha coming toward Clara's window, and Clara's new friend in the end of book), as well as to create depth and bring focus to the main characters. Rohmann also creates texture through leaves, carpet, and more, and the illusion of softness through objects such as Clara's down quilt.
The mother appears in the text but not the illustrations, and this works well; we only see Clara, Asha, her stuffed toys, and her new friends, and this makes the story truly Clara's story.
There is a great sense of fun, happiness, and magic in this book. Clara and Asha is a wonderful fantasy about magic, friendship, freedom, dreams coming true, and the belief that you can do anything, like fly—at least in your imagination.
This is an ALA notable book, and rightly so. If you're looking for an uplifting fantasy picture book, one that will leave you smiling, snap up your copy of Clara and Asha . It's worth it. Highly recommended.
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