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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
by Jean de Deu Prats, illustrated by Francesc Rovira
Sebastian didn't talk very much, even though he had a lot to say. Sebastian was shy. He was very shy.
The neighbors would say, "My goodness Sebastian, you're getting tall!"
And Sebastian would look at the floor, nod his head, and blush.
What he wanted to say though, was that someday he'd like to be tall enough to reach every single button in the elevator, even the ones at the very top.
--Sebastian's Roller Skates by Jean de Deu Prats, illustrated by Francesc Roviraby, p. 1.
Have you ever felt so shy you couldn't talk? I sure have--and so has Sebastian, the hero of this book. Sebastian has a lot he wants to say, but he doesn't say it, not to his neighbor, the barber, his teacher at school, or a girl he likes. Then one day Sebastian finds a pair of skates in the park, and tries them on. At first he falls down and gives up. But when the skates are still there the next day, he tries again. Gradually, as his skill grows, so does his confidence, until Sebastian starts to say a lot more of the things that he's held in. This is an uplifting, moving book about perseverance, overcoming shyness and fears, and becoming more of who you are.
Deu Prats clearly understands shyness or is a close observer; the ways she shows the reader Sebastian's shyness all ring true--that he looks at the floor, his feet, or his desk when people talk to him; that he blushes; and that he doesn't speak, or speaks in a whisper. Deu Prats quickly establishes reader empathy for Sebastian by both letting us see how shy Sebastian is, and telling us that he has a lot that he wants to say but can't. Shy readers will immediately identify with Sebastian.
The text is well written, and though there is a fair amount, the quality of the story always moves the reader forward, eager to know more. There is a pleasing repetition of "Sebastian didn't talk much" for the first three scenes, which brings a rhythm and continuity. The repetition is varied in each page, which helps the repetition to feel pleasing and fresh. Deu Prats uses beautiful, powerful writing and strong metaphors: "Ester had curly hair and eyes the color of honey," and "He skated as if he were a water skier, gliding gracefully behind the big dog." Deu Prat has also sprinkled some facts into the story (such as the tallest mountains in the world, and the most important deserts) which readers will absorb through the story.
I love the creativity and humor in the text. We see some of the creativity when Sebastian's swept away by the dog, and humor when when Sebastian wants to tell the barber that he made his head look like a billiard ball and he'd better not do that again, or when he grabs onto a man's mustache when he tries to balance on his skates. Deu Prats helps the reader really get inside Sebastian, come to know him, and enjoy him, through all the things that Sebastian wants to say but couldn't.
The moment of change is perfectly led up to in a way that will be familiar to many readers, "One afternoon." When Sebastian finds the abandoned skates, Deu Prats lets us know that Sebastian had always wanted to try skating, which helps the reader believe it when Sebastian tries them on.
Deu Prats really makes Sebastian's foray into skating believable. When Sebastian first tries on the skates, he falls down right away, and after a few times, he gives up and leaves the skates. But when the skates are still there the next day, Sebastian tries them on again, and gradually, over time, he gets better. Even after he improves, he compares himself to other skaters with more experience, and becomes sad and a little heartbroken, yet he tries again. This initial giving up, then trying again, then feeling discouraged, then trying again, brings authenticity to the story, and will resonate with many readers, especially shy, insecure readers, or those with low self-esteem. It also helps the reader root for Sebastian all the more, care about Sebastian and his goal, and want him to obtain it. Sebastian's initial failure and giving up makes his ultimate triumph that much more powerful, a triumph that happens on more levels than just one.
Deu Prat brings a fun twist into the plot when Sebastian, skating slowly, as usual, is concentrating so hard that he doesn't hear the shouts as a dog gets loose, and he grabs the dog's leash and is pulled along after the dog like a water skier. Due Prat brings detail into the text that helps make the setting and story feel more believable, such as naming the things Sebastian passes as he's swept along by the dog (a pond, a playground with swings, workers repairing a pipe). Deu Prat makes a point of showing the reader that Sebastian managed to keep his balance and stay upright the whole time he was pulled along by the dog, which helps make Sebastian's growing confidence in himself more believable.
Gradually, as Sebastian's confidence and skill in skating grows, so does his belief in himself, and we see his worry and shyness slowly start to melt away, and his personality begin to peek out with people. This slow progression is quite believable and nicely done. Also believable is how, even after Sebastian's gained confidence and is no longer so shy, he sometimes says everything he needs to say (but doesn't all the time). This helps shy readers see that they don't have to be perfect, completely confident, or have a complete reversal from shyness--just less shy, more outspoken, which is a very healthy, healing message.
Deu Prat brings a similar yet changed repetition of the beginning sequence into the closing, with Sebastian once again dealing with each of the same three situations (a neighbor, the barber, and school), but now acting differently, speaking out more. This brings familiarity, good feeling, and satisfaction, and shows the reader just how much Sebastian has grown and changed. All this gaining in confidence leads up to Sebastian asking Ester, the girl he likes, to go skating with him, and Ester agreeing, which brings another feel-good moment.
Sebastian remains the hero throughout; it is through Sebastian's own inner resources, and what he takes from learning to skate, that helps him overcome his shyness and fear.
The ending is uplifting and brings good feeling: Sebastian goes home happy after Ester says yes to him, breaks into his piggy bank, buys himself a pair of skates, and leaves the old pair in the park for someone else to find--someone who maybe doesn't talk much when they have a lot to say. This brings the story full circle, giving the reader the suggestion that the story isn't going to end, but is going to repeat for someone else, which brings a satisfying feeling. I love the idea of the skates being passed from one person to the next, bringing more than just a free pair of skates--bringing also a feeling of freedom and release and overcoming your fears. This is a lovely idea, and quite believable, similar to bookcrossings where people leave books for others to find. The appearance of the skates, just when Sebastian needs them, even staying on the park bench overnight, also has a kind of magical feel to it.
Rovira's ink, gouache, and paper illustrations are creative and visually pleasing, with torn pieces of paper laid over the opening and closing illustrations, starting small and appearing to come from Sebastian's head, then growing bigger, symbolizing Sebastian's pent-up thoughts and emotions, and all the things he can't say (and later does say). This paper overlay works very well; it instantly captured my attention. It is aesthetically pleasing, interesting, and unique.
Rovira visually explains the story in such a strong way that you could almost figure out what's happening without the text. The illustrations build on and enhance the text, bringing depth, emotion, and visual appeal. Rovira's lines are fluid and strong, beautifully depicting the characters and setting, body language, and emotions. Characters and setting are drawn in a mixture of cartoon and realism, with strong perspective and a feeling of depth.
Sebastian always stands out in each illustration, with his bright clothing (yellow jacket, blue sweater, red backpack) and rosy face leaping out against the more muted shades of brown, grey, and green. His metaphorical thoughts and emotions from cut paper also help to make Sebastian the visual focus.
Rovira uses color and shape in the torn paper to show Sebastian's emotions, thoughts, and his increasing confidence and ability to speak. In the beginning, his thoughts and emotions are all grey, jumbled and torn, just bits of disconnected writing and images. As he becomes more confident, the pieces of paper turn into full, bright color, and then into actual images of what he's thinking about (such as islands, mountains, and geography, and hearts to represent caring), which shows greater cohesiveness of his thoughts, emotions, and ability to express them. This works very well. Sebastian's initial liking of Ester is obviously held in, with only two hearts, while later in the book the hearts are all over the page. The last image is the most beautiful and full of all, with many bright thoughts that are full images in themselves, such as of the girl he likes, a drawing he did, the earth, and much more. It looks happy and full of energy. The writing appears in Spanish, as the book was initially published in Spain.
Rovira uses color similarly in the illustrations themselves, moving from more muted and dull colors in the beginning when Sebastian is shyer and has less confidence, to brighter, lighter, and more varied colors later when Sebastian gains more confidence and is less shy.
Rovira pays great attention to detail, bringing in many believable details to help visually ground us in the setting, such as in the barber shop where we see the cut hair on the floor; a broom leaning against the wall; Sebastian's coat and books on a chair; a hair dryer, bottle of cologne, and bottle of hair tonic on the counter drawer, with a brush sticking out; a calendar with dates on the wall, and so much more. The details help bring the setting alive.
I love how Rovira inserts her own details into the story that add to reader enjoyment, such as the mustache man having an open book on his lap; kids' artwork appearing in Sebastian's thoughts, pinned up on an outside bulletin board, and on the walls of the school; a rat appearing in one image and a cat in another; and paper appearing in many illustrations, loose on the floor, crumpled in a trash can, folded into a paper boat (which appears at least four times), used for illustrations, flying through the air, falling out of a portfolio, and of course incorporated into Sebastian's thoughts. It really feels like Rovira has fun creating her illustrations.
This book has quickly become one of my favorites--it is moving, inspiring, and both exquisitely well written and drawn. Do you know a shy or insecure child or adult who could use this book? Run out and buy them a copy--this is a wonderful, enjoyable book. Highly recommended.
-Added July 18, 2007
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