Wednesday, June 6

Heat Wave

by Eileen Spinelli
illustrated by Betsy Lewin
Harcourt 2007

Lumberville is headed for a heat wave. Small changes are made to accommodate the small town's citizens -- the Sunday sermon is shortened, the movie theatre (before the days of air conditioning) is closed. But day by day as the heat wave lingers the people of the town cope as best they can. Kids sell lemonade but eventually resort to selling ice. Fanning oneself gives way to multiple showers a day. Men and women strip down to the barest of clothing and take refuge in the shade. Beards are shorn. By week's end people are sleeping outside, on fire escapes and rooftops and eventually many in the town congregate at the river to sleep in the cool coming off the water.

And just before the heat wave breaks they all share the same dream while they sleep: they dream of cool rain. And just as abruptly as a heat wave, the book is over.

In both text and image the story recalls a by-gone era of small town life. There is a quaint nostalgia in a time before the modern comforts of the climate-controlled malls, for communities that would still rally around their commonalities even in discomfort. Subtle details in the illustrations speak to the early part of the 20th century -- a wood stove in the basement, two spinster sisters keeping their perfume in an ice box, an old dome-shaped parlor radio -- but many others (squirting each other with hoses, sleeping in hammocks) remain contemporary.

Lewin's breezy watercolors with their lose sumi ink outlines capture the wilted, wavy quality of the heat where her warm palate (and occasionally relief from cool blue highlights) sets Lumberville glowing in the heat. That's a flowery way to say that the pictures capture the loose, slightly uncomfortable feel of the heat wave while at the same time remain fluid and fresh.

No one asked me, but were I editing this book I think I would have ended with a wordless coda showing the townsfolk of Lumberville about their business in cooler times, just a simple city scene in cooler tones of color (I was starved for green!) to offset the heat wave and give a glimpse into what things looked like when they weren't so hot. It can be a tricky proposition to know when to end a story, or to even suggest when a story needs more information. I don't think the book is flawed as it stand, I would have enjoyed a bit of balance, a breather after all those pages of heat (and a dabble of cool) to feel refreshed.
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