Monday, January 5

The Robot and the Bluebird

by David Lucas
FSG 2008

Author David Lucas makes some pretty unusual books. The stories are like jigsaw puzzles of optical illusions: everything seems to be in place but the overall impression undulates in a way that makes you blink. If you've encountered Nutmeg or Whale or Halibut Jackson then you know what I'm talking about.

Unusual isn't a bad thing, though it sometimes can lead to head-scratching. No, just to be clear, I'd rather wade through more unusual picture books and try to sort out their logic any day rather than trip merrily down the same well-worn path many other books follow. In The Robot and the Bluebird we don't find the most original of themes -- a useless object/person finding new use/companionship in an unexpected encounter -- so much as a sort of quiet meditation on usefulness and appreciation.

Robot is introduced to us as having a broken heart. readers understand that what is broken are his internal mechanisms, but the story is built around the idea of what it means to have a heart in the emotional sense. Of course, when a thing is broken it is discarded, and so Robot is relegated to a garbage heap to rust our his days. One day a bluebird, late in migrating, chances to nest in Robot's chest, giving him the sensation of once again having a heart. Too tired to continue on it's way, Robot completes the bluebird's migration while carrying it along. Robot exhausts his last bit of energy while telling the bluebird that "you'll always have a place in my heart." Frozen forever, other birds come seeking refuge in and around Robot's remains.

This could so easily have gone corny, or ham-fisted, but somehow Lucas manages to pull it off. I can only attribute this to the watercolor illustrations that give the metal Robot its warmth and strength and delicacy. Some of these illustrations make me want to tear apart m copy of the book and frame them.

I almost think the book works without the story, without the words, as a sort of silent movie that had a narrative attached to it. It's a little thin on its own to simply have its words removed, but as with Where the Wild Things Are so much of the story is in the illustrations after the initial set-up. I think that with a little less words and a little more story this could have been a classic. As it is, it's very, very good.
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