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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
by Kate Banks, illustrated by Boris Kulikov
Frances Foster Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux,(August 2006)
Max's other brother, Karl, collected coins.
He had coins of many sizes and values.
They came from different countries.
Some were silver-colored with rough edges.
Others were copper-colored with smooth edges.
They were all shiny.
They had people and buildings on them and the year in which they were made.
When Karl showed them around, everyone admired them, too.
Max said, "Can I have a coin?"
"No," said Karl.
Max wanted to collect something, but he wasn't sure what.
He gave it some thought.
Finally he said, "I'm going to collect words."
"Words?" said Benjamin. He laughed.
"Very funny, Max," said Karl.
--Max's Words by Kate Banks, illustrated by Boris Kulikov, p. 4-5.
What happens when you have two older brothers who both have extensive collections, and won't give you anything? Well, in Max's case, you create your own collection out of words. In this intriguing, original story, Max cuts words out of magazines and newspapers, even copies words out from the dictionary, and organizes them in piles. His brothers laugh at him, but soon Max has created sentences, and starts a story—and his brothers immediately want to join in. Max's Words explores the fun of collecting something, and the power of words and story to delight and entertain.
Banks (Close Your Eyes) sets up the story nicely, showing the reader from the opening two pages what Max doesn't have through what his brothers do have (stamp and coin collections), and this moves the story toward Max's solution. There's a good forward movement of both the plot and the details that build it, from Max's problem to his attempt to solve it; from Max's collecting small words to bigger words, then to sentences and a story; and from Max's being left out, to gaining his brothers' attention, to finally having something that they want, and gaining some respect and place in the family.
Max, the hero of the story, starts off as an underdog, left out, not getting attention like his brothers do, not even having a collection of any sort, and being laughed at when he decides to collect words. This increases the feeling of satisfaction and justice when everything works out well for Max in the end.
Banks skillfully builds up compassion for Max and makes the reader care about him through Max's situation, his brothers' lack of generosity, his brothers making fun of him, and Max's resourcefulness and dauntless spirit as he attempts to create his own collection out of nothing.
Max's Words takes something that writers do metaphorically and turns it into something concrete—an actual collection of cut-out words used to make a story—making this a creative and original book. As a writer and a lover of words, the book appeals to me on so many levels. Banks also uses an interesting technique of creating a story within a story (Max creating his own story out of words) which shows the power and enticement of words. However, for me that was one of the slowest scenes in the book, perhaps because it was not about characters I had come to care about.
At first glance, the text may appear long to some readers, but it moves smoothly forward, pulling the reader along with it. Readers will want to keep turning the pages to find out what happens to Max and his collection of words. Banks includes details in the text that some other picture-book writers would have left to the illustrator, but these details help build a picture in the reader's mind, and add to the richness of the story.
Through the story, Banks shows the reader many things about words—that there are words that can make a person feel good; words that help describe the world; new words that a person can learn; that the order of the words makes a big difference in what those words mean or suggest will happen (unlike stamps and coins); and that together, words can make sentences and thoughts, and sentences and thoughts can make stories—one of the most powerful and enjoyable things words can do. Banks helps to teach the reader about the importance of words without it feeling like a lesson; it's just part of the story, and an important part.
The theme of Max not having something his brothers have—stamps or coins—is threaded throughout the story. This makes it all the more satisfying when Max is finally able to trade some words for a coin and a stamp, since he has created something that his brothers want and can see is fun.
Max's Words may make ethusiastic readers want to get out their scissors and make word collections of their own. This is a satisfying, enjoyable story that celebrates a love of words and story.
Kulikov's (The Boy Who Cried Wolf) illustrations are highly creative and visually appealing, and they add so much richness, humor, and fun to the text. Kulikov's work in this book is a creative genius. There is so much to look at in each illustration, and so many connections between the words in the text and the metaphorical and concrete images used to represent those words and ideas. For instance, in two illustrations Max's brothers appear in small cut-outs, within a circle for the brother who has a coin collection, and within a stamp cut-out for the brother who collects stamps. In another illustration, Max's question appears in cut-out words that together make the shape of a question mark.
Visually the cut-out words are very appealing, using different fonts, colors, and shapes as if cut from magazines, ads, and newspapers. But the most creative and visually appealing aspect to the cut-out words are the strong visual connections Kulikov makes between the word and its meaning—connections that may help young readers match the word they hear to the word they see. For instance, "hungry" is written in a curve like a smile, with a bite taken out of the top, and with visible teeth marks; crocodile and alligator are paired above and below each other like a mouth, narrowing at one end, with sharp jagged points like teeth, and are green; and hissed has two Ss that look like snakes. The creativity and visual appeal that Kulikov used here makes his work and the book stand out.
Max is the visual focus of each illustration (and so he should be) with his red sweater, sometimes appearing on his own in a great white space, often the only character in an illustration. When Max is pictured with both his brothers, he is almost always in between them, at the center, and at the forefront of the illustration. Max also stands out through his clothing; his red sweater and messy spiked hair has a down-to-earth feel to it, contrasting with his brothers' clothes that echo businessmen (vests and ties) and slick combed down hair, which gives them an almost mercenary feeling.
Max is clearly on the outside of his family in the opening illustrations, shown by a full-page illustration of his brother and family staring at the brother's collection, lots of color and jumbled activity occurring, while Max is on the accompanying page, alone and small against a lot of white space, only a tiny bit of the full illustration jutting into his page. Later, as Max creates his own collection and gains his brothers' interest, Max is always in the center of his two brothers, and the focal point. Kulikov deftly matches the emotional tone and events of his illustrations to the text's tone and meaning of the words. His illustrations are emotionally evocative; you can feel Max's left-outness and the unfairness of it all just by looking at the opening illustrations (which helps increase compassion for Max), then the intrigue and fun, and later Max's jubilation.
Kulikov's illustrations greatly add to the story. Seeing Max sitting on one of his piles of words, and later standing knee-deep in them, is delightful. Kulikov also helps make the story Max writes come more alive; as Max lays out the words into sentences, those sentences are shown as scenes in the adjoining page.
Kulikov has a distinct illustrative style, his characters having proportionally large faces (as well as eyes and noses), interesting perspectives, and a great playfulness. Many of the illustrations bleed right to the edge of a page, with a part or corner of the illustration cutting into the joining page and connecting up to max. Many illustrations take up a spread, some take up one page, and others seem to take up a page and a bit. Kulikov uses a warm palette, drawing on reds and yellow-browns with bright green, and those colors are echoed in the piles of words (light yellow-brown pieces of paper with faded green and brown print) and in the furniture, as well as the entire book, which helps to visually bring all the illustrations together.
Kulikov helps create a particularly happy and satisfying ending through Max looking jubilant after having gotten a stamp and coin. It's also fun to see his brothers clutching their piles of words, and seeing all three brothers tumble into another story beginning. Kulikov also added a satisfying closing illustration which shows Max in the center with his scissors and a cut-out magazine, and his two brothers on either side; Max (and his collection) is now the center of attention, which is a nice reversal.
There's a lot of humor in the book, from the funny way the words Max cuts out are visually depicted, to the humorous clothing Max's brothers wear. Another funny thing that writers, especially, will enjoy, as well as many adults, is that the magazine Max cuts up is a book review magazine. Poetic justice?
This is an absolutely enjoyable, imaginative book that celebrates words, language, and story, and encourages readers to make their own collections of words and thoughts, and to write their own stories. The joy and power of language and story really come through. Highly recommended.
-Added March 2007
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