by Barbara Lehman
Houghton Mifflin 2007
What a disappointment.
A bored, lonely boy attempts to amuse himself one rainy day when he discovers a key under the furniture. Trying all the locked places he can think of he eventually finds its mate is a trunk that contains a ladder that leads underground. Following the underground tunnel he emerges on an island containing a lighthouse and a group of children and sunshine. They play together, eat together, and let the boy take a turn lighting the beacon. At the end of the day he takes his leave and returns to his dull home life.
At night he can't shake the image of the day's events and the next morning he ventures back into the tunnel only to be met by the children from the island who dared to venture to visit him. They return to his home and in the end happily play in his room.
There is a very weird class thing going on here that makes me uncomfortable. The boy is shown eating alone at one point in front of a formally set table, servants at the ready, dressed in a tie and a little boy suit. He may be the classic boy trapped in the tower of luxury but in the end he doesn't escape, he merely invites he new (and always shoeless) playmates into his home. That the boy is white and the playmates are represented by minorities doesn't help.
The question is, if the tunnel has always been there, if these children have always had a way to escape the island, why didn't they find the boy first? Could these be the children of the servants? When you get a wordless picture book you get to make the story up yourself, but you must use the clues available to you. So what is it Lehman wants us to read into all this?
Where Lehman previously gave us the parallel universe of The Red Book it all it's wordless glory, and the Museum Trip gave is a magical daydream, Rainstorm gives us a rather dull tale of privileged boredom and no mystery or fantasy whatsoever.
I'm not just hard on the book in comparison to Lehman's other books; it's difficult to not set this up alongside recent wordless picture books that are more clever (Adventures of Polo) or more detailed in their fantasy (most David Weisner books, especially Flotsom). Fantasy and escape don't need concrete explanations, but the questions they raise should invite equally fanciful interpretation. There isn't a lot to hang onto here, much less interpret, beyond the little dot of a moon in the night sky that actually belongs to the beacon and is as easily missed as it can be ignored.
It also isn't a question of the fantasy, the pacing of the book feels labored and pointless. Easily a third of the pictures could be removed and the story would retain its integrity. But a book with one third fewer illustrations would be very thin, and the story's shortcomings would be readily apparent.
The exercise feels as distant, closed off and cold, sheltered and empty