By Aaron Becker
Candlewick Press, 2013
Wordless picture books fascinate me. Perhaps because words are my “thing,” I’m somewhat in awe of someone who can tell a story – a fully-realized, rich, deep story – without them.
I didn’t read (is that the right term?) wordless picture books as a kid. In fact, I read very few picture books at all. I started with A Child’s Garden of Verses at age 3, but by age 7, I was reading A Christmas Carol. And once I’d discovered novels, I almost never looked back. Something about the immersiveness of fiction pulled me in and held me.
I rediscovered picture books as a high school senior, when I was looking for inspiration for an assignment. I remembered how much I had loved A Child’s Garden of Verses and went back to it. There was something entrancing in the spareness of the words and the way they nevertheless managed to tell an entire story. Intrigued, I started reading the occasional picture book in between my dates with Dickens and Steinbeck and other “grownup” favorites.
Then, my first year in college, I encountered my first wordless picture book (really). It was David Wiesner’s Tuesday, one of the wittiest, most imaginative works in the genre. I was hooked. Ever since, I’ve kept a weather eye out for more.
And that’s how I discovered Aaron Becker’s Journey. I was reading the ALA’s announcement of this year’s Caldecott books, and the description caught my eye. A wordless picture book that had nabbed a Caldecott Honor? Count me in! And there was a girl on the cover – bonus! (Yes, I’m a geek.) So, the next time I went to the library, I picked it up.
Journey is the story of a bored, lonely young girl who discovers a magical red crayon and uses it to create an adventure for herself. She visits an enchanted wood and a sprawling castle, rescues a beautiful bird from a greedy emperor, takes a magic carpet ride through the desert, and makes a new friend.
The book is full of clever allusions, some that older elementary-age kids might catch, and others probably only apparent to grownups. I saw shades of Harold and the Purple Crayon, Where the Wild Things Are, M.C. Escher, and Lord of the Rings, to name a few. The characters and settings are a fascinating blend of steampunk and medieval-cum-early-20th-century Asian, Middle Eastern, Far Eastern, and European.
Yet Becker somehow combines all these elements into an original, integral, captivating whole. I was virtually on the edge of my seat, waiting to see what the girl would do next, how she would solve a particular problem, or where she would go.
And that’s partly where the inspirational aspect of Journey lies. Becker’s heroine is a true adventurer – and girl adventurers still aren’t all that common in picture books. This little girl is curious, bold, and inventive: just the role model to encourage little girls to get out there, discover, and do.
The art is inspiring, too. And I’m not just talking about Becker’s breathtakingly beautiful illustrations. The heroine moves from place to place by creating art of her own, always in a blazing shade of red. Her art is elegant in its simplicity, but forceful and active. She’s an encouragement to girls to make and create, to let art take their spirits to new and wild places.