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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
by Barbara Lehman
Houghton Mifflin,(April 2007)
What happens when you're lonely and alone, and even the weather seems dreary? In Rainstorm, the lonely boy discovers new friends through magic—a key that opens a treasure chest that leads down into a winding tunnel, up some stairs, and into a different part of the world—an island where the sun is shining, the sky is blue, and children are waiting to play with him.
Lehman's signature wordless fantasy (The Red Book, Museum Trip) doesn't disappoint. While this book doesn't feel quite as magical as The Red Book, it delights and brings a sense of magic, hope, and friendship. This is a great book that can give readers a sense of hope, belonging, and a feeling that they aren't alone.
The story is told completely through the illustrations, and it's told well. There was rarely ever a page where I wanted something more to help explain what happened, or explore it more deeply.
Lehman's watercolor, gouache, and ink illustrations use strong lines to outline most everything—the characters, furniture, walls, etc—except light, clouds, ripples on water. Those same lines are echoed, though thicker and stronger, through the dark ink borders that contain most of the illustrations. Broad, flat expanses of color are used in the illustrations, with the most gradation seen in the island sky. The illustrations alternate from large illustrations, one per page, to six evenly spaced illustrations on a page showing a sequence of events. This variation helps keep the story visually interesting, and also adds greater detail to the story and events. The few full-bleed illustrations are illustrations of hope and happiness—the boy standing at the top of the lighthouse against a clear blue sky, and the closing page where the boy's new friends have come to play with him at his house. Variation comes, too, in the mixture in the race and gender of the children, as well as the setting (indoors to outdoors, rich and living off the land).
The characters have dots for their eyes, yet their body language is expressive. Lehman is skilled at conveying emotion not only through body language, but also her use of space, setting, details, and color. In the beginning, especially, the boy is always pictured alone, small compared to the vastness of the house, its tall windows, and its furnishings, with no company and little color to brighten his day, even eating alone at the end of a long elaborate table, the servants' faces not appearing in the illustration. The style of the house and furnishings (a rich, tidy, almost barren house), the boy's clothing (a dress shirt and tie, and slickly combed hair), the bleakness of the colors and the weather outside, and that there are no other people around except servants, all serve to underscore the boy's aloneness. This is also increased by the somewhat heavy, dull colors used in the beginning when the boy is alone (a lot of dark brown furniture and floors, beige or brown walls, dull grey skies, and even the brown of the tunnel until he reaches the spiral staircase of the lighthouse).
This lonely feeling changes into something lighter and happier after he finds his new friends. Lehman uses bright colors, a vast open sky, lush green outdoors, a lot of white (in the lighthouse, the water and sky) and smiling faces to bring a happy feeling for the reader and the boy in the new land he enters. The bright blue sky with white fluffy clouds as he stands at the top of the lighthouse, just before he discovers his new friends, brings a sense of hope and magic (it was raining hard and drearly dark at his home). The pulled-back view of the island and the lighthouse also add to the magic of the story, just before we see his new playmates. This feeling of lightness and magic is retained, even when the boy goes to bed alone (he goes to bed smiling, and it is clear, through the illustrations on the same page, that he knows he'll see the other children again the next day).
Lehman also creates a clear emotional shift in the boy, moving from standing alone, walking with a bowed head, wearing up tight clothes, no smile, and clearly lonely and upset, to having a beaming face, his shirt untucked and unbuttoned, his tie undone, his feet bare, his hair messed up, running around playing with others instead of sadly staring out a window.
There is a great sense of wonder and magic in this story, from the moment the boy reaches under a chair for his ball and finds a key that, when he opens up a treasure chest, reveals a ladder leading into another part of the world, and on through the boy's travels to meeting other children to joyfully play with. There is also a nice sense of belonging, friendship, and satisfaction that will touch the heart of anyone who's ever felt lonely or longed for someone to play with.
The boy's expressions and body language add to the sense of wonder and mystery when he first discovers the key; he looks first surprised, then wondering, and then we see him trying out the key on various locks before he discovers the right one.
Though I enjoyed following the boy into the island where he discovers new playmates, for me there were one to two pages too many of his travelling alone through tunnels and a stairway before coming out through the trap door in the lighthouse floor. Those areas lacked emotional grip for me, as well as a sense of wonder.
Though the boy clearly has a wonderful time with his new friends eating bread and jam, playing catch, flying a kite, building a sand castle, and turning on the lighthouse light, the events felt slightly disjointed to me, and did not entirely flow together.
The ending is satisfying and contains a small surprise that uplifts the reader and makes it seem that the story continue even after the book has closed. The next morning when the boy uses his key to visit his new friends, he discovers them in the tunnel coming to see him! They sought him out at the same time. There is a sense that this will continue, and that the boy will no longer be lonely or isolated.
One small thing did not make sense to me and threw me slightly—on the last page, the island with the lighthouse is seen through the boy's window. I enjoyed thinking that the story was magical, and if the island view is taken literally, this makes the tunnels less magical and more plausible (perhaps the island is really that close, and the weather can change so dramatically in such a short space?). Still, the trunk with the ladder seems so magical that there may readily be another explanation.
A nice added design touch is that the front end papers are a dark grey-purple, like the dull grey rainy sky and how the boy initially feels, and the closing end papers are a bright blue like the happy blue sky of the island and how happy the boy feels now that he has friends.
This is a wonderful fantasy about a lonely child who finds friends and laughter just when he needs them. Rainstorm can remind readers how important friendship and a sense of hope are, and may bring a sense of wonder and magic. It may also help some readers feel less alone, or feel hopeful or more confident in reaching out to others. Readers may also feel inspired to search for their own magical treasure chest or passageway into another land. Highly recommended.
-Added March 2007
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