Wednesday, April 18

2 by Gregory Rogers

It seemed impossible to talk about the most recent of Gregory Rogers wordless picture books without talking about the earlier book. Not that the two books can't stand on their own, but they also seem so much a part of one that I'm doing them together.

The Boy, the Bear, the Baron and the Bard
Neal Porter/Roaring Brook 2004 (US)

A Boy in modern England kicks a soccer ball through the window of an abandoned theatre. Once inside to retrieve his ball his attention is diverted by costumes, which he feels compelled to try on. He kicks his ball through the curtain and, going after it, finds himself transported onto the stage in Elizabethan England. The Bard in the wings, furious that his play has been interrupted by this rapscallion, gives chase.

From here out it's a Shakespearean action movie. While hiding out the boy befriends and frees a caged Bear and together they outwit and outrun the Bard, help an imprisoned Baron escape, entertain on a Lady's barge, and in the end go their separate ways. The Bear is set sailing down the Thames in a small punt while the Boy, at the last minute, is transported back through time to the modern day.

Midsummer Night
Neal Porter/Roaring Brook 2007 (US)

Picking up where the previous book left off, Bear is still floating down river, only now he is out of the city and into lush forest. A buzzing bee wakes the slumbering Bear, alerting and leading him to the presence of honey in a nearby tree. Chased by the angry hive Bear discovers a tree with a door in it and, after a cursory knock, barges through to a tunnel in the trunk. Coming out the other side Bear discovers he has been shrunk to the size of nearby mushrooms in a land of fairies.

The Boy appears, this time as a helpful sprite, offering to introduce him to his king. Once at the palace the Bard takes them to the court where he accuses them of some sort of treason. Imprisoned they find themselves in the same cell as the King and Queen (the Baron and the Lady from the previous book) and make a plan to escape. More chasing, some swordplay, and in the end the Bard is arrested for his misdeeds. Bear receives heroic honors from the King and Queen and is led back to his boat by the Boy where he is free to continue floating on.

Expertly paced, both books have true cinematic arcs to their storytelling that make them a joy to follow. That Rogers is using the same cast of main characters to tell these stories make them more like a repertory group putting on their latest production, which is hardly accidental. More only criticism happens in the first book where there is a clunky transition between the two worlds -- almost as if Rogers was unsure the reader would understand what was happening -- that he doesn't use in the second book, which I was happy to see. I think children can make a lot of solid connections in well "explained" pictures and Rogers has what it takes to make those connections visually smooth.

In the introduction to the first book Rogers admits that everything clicked for him the moment he discovered that Shakespeare's plays began at 4 in the afternoon, suggesting a late afternoon reverie. In the the more recent book he speaks to his love of Elizabethan costumes and that love is clear in both books.

In thinking about these books, and in similar books like Polo -- books with panels of action and no dialog, sequential stories -- I'm thinking we may need to consider coming up with a new term if not a new genre. It doesn't seem right to call them graphic novels when they're meant for the picture book crowd, no matter how appropriate the name may be. And to call them picture books seems to imply they aren't different from the traditional word-and-illustration books we understand to be the picture book. One thing is certain, they are a far cry from comic books and a far cry from the uncomplicated pre-reader picture and board books.

I guess if Rogers is keen on continuing with his company of players, the next ought to figure the Baron as the main character with the others in support, then the Bard in the last book. After that I guess we're on our own, which is sad in advance of the fact that there's no proof any further books are even being considered. And while I'm speculating, it would be nice to not only see a day with four books in print but of a single bound edition containing all-in-one.

I think if the world of book publishing is hoping to build a solid graphic novel base then they need to start weening their audience early on. More like this, please.
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