Tuesday, May 1

Pictures From Our Vacation

by Lynne Rae Perkins
Greenwillow/ HarperCollins 2007

We were going to our family farm. No one lived at the farm anymore, but our grandparents were spending the summer there and we were going to visit them...

It's a two day trip to the family farm and just before they leave mom gives her children instant cameras and a blank notebook to record their vacation. The first shot is an accident, a picture of feet taken while trying to figure out how the camera works.

Heading out of town our narrator, the girl, imagines what their motel will be like that first night, followed by vivid plans for her own dream-style motel. Her dream motel includes a pool, an azure oasis in the heartland. She is naturally disappointed when they arrive at the motel and find the pool has no water in it at all. A photo documents this disappointment.

At the farm they settle in and dig out an old badminton set with warped rackets. They aren't long into the game when they are chased inside by the rain. A photo of a warped racket is taken.

The rain lasts for days on end, forcing games of cards and drawing, silent reading and building towers from playing cards. No pictures are taken.

When the weather clears they take a day trip to a nearby lake. They get lost along the way (trying to find one of dad's childhood shortcuts) and then stop at a large Native American earthwork, a snake mound along the river. A picture is taken next to the mound that looks like nothing more than a grassy knoll in the photo.

They reach the lake finally, just as it starts to rain again. No photo.

They attend a memorial service for a great aunt who was something of a free-spirited adventurer in her day. Afterward many people gather at the old farm house, distant cousins and friends, where they feast and play and spend the night together. "I didn't take any pictures that day," the girl says.

Finally it's time to return home. She takes out her notebook and looks at the pictures. "These don't remind me that much of our vacation," she says. Her father suggests that putting a person in the photos makes them more interesting, gives something to focus on. But mom gets it right when she opines that perhaps they were having too much fun to take better pictures.

As picture books go, it's a wordy one, not the kind a lap-sitter would sit still for. No, this belongs to that special class of picture book that has fallen somewhat out of favor, the long-form picture book intended for older independent readers. This kind of picture book was what I was weened on in the days before beginning readers was a market and snack series filled the gap between Syd Hoff and Dr. Seuss and the books of Roald Dahl and Jerome Beatty.

Long-form isn't just about more words than what most current picture books contain, but also in pacing, in the leisurely feel of the story getting around to its points. The long-form picture book isn't just a story, it's an illustrated short story, and like its grown-up versions it is about a specific moment of discovery told with a certain amount of economy.

Words and pictures work together to tell two different stories of the same events. Perkins is careful in making sure to alternate between scenes of broad overviews and smaller moments, sometimes illustrating ideas only barely hinted at in the texts (like memories) or not even mentioned in the text at all (the quiet activities during the rain). The insets of the photos the kids take are exactly the sort of snapshots kids would take when their brains are telling them to record a moment for posterity but haven't the experience to know how to capture those moments. It's no surprise that their notebooks are filled with images that don't even hint at the vacation's activities, a gentle lesson in living life as opposed to recording it obsessively.

There are some scrap-bookers out there who might benefit from this message.

Perkins gouache illustrations catch the bright colors of summer, the saturation of our memories of summers past, shimmering luminescent pieces of frozen time. I'm still not quite sure what reader this book is best for, but for the right reader this is a gem.
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