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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
by Arthur Geisert
Walter Lorraine Books/Houghton Mifflin,(September 2005)
My parents make me turn off the light at eight. They know I'm afraid to go to sleep unless the light is on. They said, "If you can figure something out--go ahead." So I did.
--Lights Out, by Arthur Geisert, p. 1.
In this funny and endearing book, a young pig who's afraid to go to sleep in the dark on creates an ingenious invention to allow himself time to fall asleep before the light goes out, while still doing as his parents ask.
Lights Out is an almost wordless book; the text appears only on the first page, setting up the story, and then the illustrations take it from there. There are only four brief sentences, but they work perfectly to tell the reader the pig's problem and to let the reader know that the piglet created a solution. It's a great set up—telling readers why something happened (the piglet created the contraption) and piquing curiosity (What exactly did the piglet do to solve his problem?) until, by the end of the illustrations, the reader's got the answer.
Somewhere around the middle of the book, I found myself wanting some brief text to propel me forward, but after a page or two more I was sucked back into the story.
Geisert's (The Giant Ball of String) ink-and-watercolor illustrations rely on ink lines with fine hatching for shading and areas of darkness (with light washes of color) and this gives the illustrations a unique look. Since the story is told mostly through the illustrations, they have to entertain—and entertain they do. After the text set up, the illustrations are laugh-out-loud funny in their absurdity and the complexity to which the piglet went to avoid going to sleep in the dark. There is also a kid's touch to them, as many of the parts that make up the contraption are kid's toys (a tricycle, wood blocks, ball, toy truck, magnet, and baseball) as well as tools and objects found around the house. Because the contraption is made from familiar everyday objects, the elaborate machine seems almost possible, adding to the humor.
The reader is taken through the motion of the contraption step by step. The contraption begins in the piglet's bedroom, with a cord attached to the end of his lamp pull, around a wheel, up through the ceiling into the attic and back down near his bed, dangling with a handle that he can pull, then the cord coming out of his ceiling, attaching to a metal pail hanging above a horn spout that goes out his window. And on and on it goes, from wood blocks set up like dominoes in the attic, the forward momentum setting another tool in motion, to an elaborate set up with a bucket of water that spills into a horn that spills down through the eavestrough, and much much more, ending, finally, in turning off the piglet's light thirty minutes later. This elaborate contraption—and the lengths that the piglet has gone to to avoid the dark while obeying his parents—bring great humor to the story.
The pacing of the illustrations works well, showing us the big picture of each series of connections in the pig's contraption (and where they're located in or around the house) before zooming up close to see each part of the connection work. The reader also sees the pig slowly falling asleep as the contraption does its work, and this is satisfying.
Details add to the delight of the story and to the absurdity, such as in the second spread where the reader sees the piglet's paper drafts of his invention taped to his bedroom walls, and tools and bits of wood leaning against his walls and scattered along the floor. It's also a nice touch that the piglet is reading in bed, just as the reader is reading the book (and this affirms reading, as well). The piglet's bedside clock is also often visible when the piglet is, so the reader can see the movement of time (a half hour has passed by the time the piglet is asleep).
Geisert skillfully uses color (and lack of color) to draw attention to or divert attention from objects. Much of the palette is muted (as it is nighttime), with a lot of gray and black created by the hatching for the night and for shading, a yellow-gray of the illustration's paper used for the walls and many other surfaces. Splashes of bright, warm color come in the piglet and his immediate surroundings (his bedspread, his dresser), the piglet's parents, and key aspects of his contraption that are in motion or were just in use. This works well, drawing attention to the piglet and his parents as well as the aspects of the contraption, and leaving the rest of the illustration in the background, unimportant to the action, but part of the story. It works to keep the characters in the story and connect the invention with them (so the reader has something to care about). The long lines of hatching that dominate the illustrations also work to contrast the less controlled, quirkier lines of the pig family and the piglet's contraption, and are also used to draw attention to the focal point.
Periodically the reader sees the piglet and what he's doing as his contraption is in motion, and sometimes his parents, although this is more frequent at both the beginning and end of the book. Some illustrations (or series of illustrations) focus entirely on the piglet's contraption and what it is doing, and completely lose sight of the piglet; I would have preferred seeing the piglet more often, thus having a character or a reason to care about the invention. Still, this did not take away from the humor for me.
The illustrations actually begin on the front cover (seen in a circle, as if through a telescope), and end the same way. The cover illustration is of the piglet standing on his bed with his hands at his waist, his bedside clock and the handle of his contraption visible, and the back illustration is of the house, all the windows dark, pigs clearly asleep, as the moon shines down. These illustrations add to the story, and to the sense of a beginning and an end, bringing greater satisfaction. (Observant readers will enjoy finding those bonus illustrations that aren't simply a repetition of what's inside.)
The illustrations vary in size, from full spreads with a white border of the page itself, to a single large image on a page (also with a white border), to various small images on a page showing a sequence of events. Both the beginning and end illustrations are smaller in size, signaling a beginning and end to the book, and creating a nice visual repetition. Interestingly, the pages are numbered (many picture books are not).
The second last illustration shows the house, with the piglet asleep and his parents still up, some of the contraption, and the order of the contraption in little numbered circles (with the numbers corresponding to where they occur in the book). This illustration didn't work for me as part of the story; it was too cluttered and busy, and didn't tell me anything I hadn't seen before. I would have enjoyed it more as a legend at the back of the book. But curious readers who want to see again how the contraption worked or where each part of it was located will probably really enjoy this page.
There is a nice sense of closure in the last (inner) illustration, showing the piglet slightly smiling in his sleep, his colorful quilt pulled up around him, his bedside clock showing the passage of time, and the little card labeled "light cord" still visible.
This is a funny, entertaining book that may cause giggles or outright laughter. It also subtly encourages readers to stay true to themselves, to use creative problem solving, to think outside the box, and to do what they need to to feel safe. If you're looking for a light-hearted book on the dark or sleep, or just want a laugh, pick this book up. Highly recommended.
-Added February 2007
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