Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Review of The Whole Green World by Tony Johnston and Elisa Kleven

Since I'm already in poetry mode this week, let me share with you a picture book that's a poem. Like many of my favorites, this one's out of print, so look for it at your library.

I had been a fan of poet Tony Johnston's An Old Shell: Poems of the Gallapagos for a few years when I came across The Whole Green World, which is one of those books people tend to call "a celebration of life." Each spread is composed of a stanza of the poem on the left, displayed inside a circle of items representing the theme of the stanza (watch especially for the circle of ladybugs and ants!). Then on the right-hand page, you find a series of illustrations of a child planting a little garden, accompanied by her dog.

The poem seems to ramble, including topics like shoes and cake as well as seeds, but it all combines wonderfully and deliberately to capture a child's meandering, light-filled view of the world. Here's the first stanza:
I've got a little pair of shoes.
(Comfy, cozy little shoes.)
Got a little pair of shoes
to walk the whole round world.
And you see the girl putting her shoes on, a book about gardening beside her and her dog peeking in the window along with the sun. She talks about her dog and the stick she digs with, then we get this stanza about seeds:
I've got a little sack of seeds.
(Fat and slick like glassy beads.)
Got a little sack of seeds
to plant the whole round world.
Far too many poetic picture book texts out there are mere verse, but Tony Johnston is the real deal, and it shows. The poem is beautifully crafted, a cheery and tongue-pleasing read. On top of that, the choice of Elisa Kleven to illustrate it is simply inspired. If you haven't seen Elisa Kleven's freewheeling art before, you're in for a treat. I suppose I'm biased: the one piece of original children's book illustration I've ever bought is a small Kleven work depicting kids cartwheeling among autumn trees. It hangs in my office where I can see it when I write, and it lifts my heart to look at it.

I just visited Kleven's website, and I learned two things: one, that she uses watercolor, colored pencil, ink, crayons, and collage to make her artwork, and two, that her style represents a vision of the world worth mentioning here. Listen to how the illustrator (often author-illustrator) talks about herself:
"I write and illustrate picture books because I've never outgrown a deep childhood urge to enter a magical world. As a child growing up in Los Angeles I used to wish that my huge, congested city were more like the places in the books that I loved - places where forests grew and seasons changed, where animals talked and anything was possible."
Somehow, Tony Johnston's poem and Elisa Kleven's art come together in this small book to recreate the world, making it more magical and happy without resorting to sticky sentimentality. Share Tony Johnston and Elisa Kleven's picture book with your own child, and learn to "dance the whole green world"!


Jennifer said...

My favorite Elisa Kleven book is The Apple Doll. It's a lovely first-time-at-school story and it has a fun craft recipe in the back too!

Kate Coombs said...

Jennifer--Oh, I like that one, too! And it makes me think about Rain Makes Applesauce... or The Apple Pie That Papa Baked. (Like Six Degrees of Separation, only with books. Sort of.)