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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
by Patricia Thomas, illustrated by Chris L Demarest
Boyds Mills Press,(August 2008)
--Red Sled by Patricia Thomas, illustrated by Chris L Demarest, p. 1-8.
Red Sled is a lovely reminder that having fun can help lift your mood.
In Red Sled, a young boy is sad, and his father, looking at him, is sad, too. But his father has an idea. They don outdoor clothing, and then go outside into the snowy evening, pulling their red sled behind them. They climb a hill, then slide down it together, laughing and having a good time. When they're through, they go indoors and warm up, the father making the son a warm drink, and then getting him ready for bed. Neither are sad any more--they did something fun that changed their mood and made them feel closer.
Thomas' text is simple, with very few words. The text doesn't contain complete sentences, but the story is easy to understand from the few words and the illustrations. The story opens and closes with the red sled, and the boy and his father move from feeling sad to both feeling happy.
Thomas made some good word choices to help us see and feel the story--"Still hill" to let us know how quiet it is, "Warm-up cup" and "snug hug" bringing a feeling of warmth and comfort after the sadness and the outside cold. Thomas' bare use of words and the opening and closing with the sled are intentional; she structured the text on a format of writing called chiasmus, which creates a mirror image where the story moves towards a center point and then reverses. (Interested readers can learn more about that at the back of the book, which makes the story also a learning tool.) Thomas successfully wrote a chiasmus, but I would have liked to see less rigidity in the structure, and a bit more word flow and storytelling. Text such as " Go! Go! No! No! Whoa! Whoa!" doesn't do much for me. Still, that's a personal take, and I enjoyed the story.
That the child and his father spontaneously go out to sled at night brings a nice feeling; adults don't always think about having fun late at night, and yet it was a lovely solution in this story.
Some story texts wouldn't work without the illustrations, and that's the case with Red Sled, at least for me. Demarests' watercolor illustrations are bright and bold, and fill out the story, bringing emotion and understanding. The coldness and evening are conveyed well with large expanses of white snow and a dark blue sky, and that dark blue on the snow in shadow, and in the boy's shirt and pants. A bright yellow background indoors helps to bring a feeling of light and warmth, as do visual details such as the father walking with his arm around his son's shoulders, the boy in pajamas drinking hot chocolate, and the boy getting a hug and being tucked into bed. Young and old alike will also find the second-to-closing illustration comforting, with the boy tucked into bed, smiling as he sleeps, and his father reading a book in a comfy chair with his feet propped up, two cats sleeping next to each other on a bright rag rug.
Characters and objects are outlined in black, and characters are drawn fluidly. Facial expressions and body language work well, with a few lines drawn to show features. I love that the boy and his father look happy and excited from the moment they think of taking the sled outside, onward. This is a feel-good book.
Demarest worked with and built on the feeling of the story well, showing us the movement from sad to happy, then having fun, and then to a connectedness, a comfort together. The illustrations, especially, bring a sweetness to the book. Demarest's illustrations also help fill in any holes in the bare text, showing us much more of the story (such as that "hot pot" and "warm up cup" are the father making hot chocolate, and the boy in his pajamas drinking it after the cold outside).
Demarest varies the layout, from a single illustration taking up a complete spread, to multiple smaller illustrations within the same spread. The multiple, smaller illustrations occur within the action scenes, and this works especially well on the climb up the hill and the beginning of the ride down; you can actually see the progression. Demarest also adds small touches, such as a rabbit hopping away from the red sled stuck in the snow in both the opening and closing illustrations, which bring a feeling of life, rather than just an inanimate, though bright, object.
You can see the movement of the brush and the paint strokes in many of the illustrations, which reminds the reader that these are watercolor illustrations. It also, at times, brings a sense of movement, such as in the sky.
This is a lovely book that will remind you of the importance of having fun, and doing things that make you and your loved ones feel good, especially when you're feeling down or as a way to shift a low mood. Though the text is spare, the illustrations make the story clear. This is a comforting read, good for any time of the year. Highly recommended.
-Added July 21, 2008
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