Illustration Matters: War and Peas with Scott Magoon and Tricia Tusa’s Beautiful Blue Room

h1 March 20th, 2008 by jules

It’s time again for a look at some of my favorite new picture books — with the added bonus of taking a peek inside at some of the art work.

So, Adrienne and I are composing a list of our favorite Slightly Demented Picture Books and why we love them so. One of the books you’ll see on that list — whenever we actually post that thing, the idea for it having been born last August, I think (can someone please give me three more hours in each day?) — is Kara LaReau and Scott Magoon’s Ugly Fish, which I raved about here at 7-Imp over a year ago. Good things like Ugly Fish happen when LaReau and Magoon put their heads together, so I was thrilled to see they have a new one from Harcourt, Rabbit & Squirrel: A Tale of War and Peas, to be released this May.

If you’re wondering what exactly we mean by “slightly demented picture books,” well…you’ll have to tune in later and check out our list, huh? But, as a teaser and as Adrienne put it so well, they are those books that we love and that kids love that make some adults uncomfortable, ones that tell big truths about life in one way or another. We think Ugly Fish most definitely fits comfortably in that category, and more on that later. Is Rabbit and Squirrel’s tale one that is going to make some parents squirm a bit? No. But does it tell big truths about life? You’re darn tootin’ it does (sorry, my four-year-old’s vocabulary is encroaching its way into my own), in this case a bit of commentary about nothing less than war and peace. Whoa.

And a quick thanks to Scott Magoon for sharing some of the book’s art work with us this week. Onwards then . . .

Meet Rabbit:

She takes excellent care of her garden, and is mighty proud of it, as you can see clearly here.

Meet Squirrel:

He also has much pride in his garden and “tended his sweet peas and tomatoes with great energy and zeal.”

And, I have to add, notice their names? “Not too long ago, there lived a rabbit named Rabbit . . . Across the way, there lived a squirrel named Squirrel.” Why do I love that and it made me laugh out loud? ‘Cause that is so totally how children name their pets and toys. In books and television for children, these wildly imaginative names for children’s pets — Mrs. Murray McSparkles or Rainbow Dazzle or some such thing — are invariably assigned. However, children are so totally always saying things like, “I think I’ll name my new puppy Yellow or, uh, Doggy.” This introduction to the characters is also a laugh-inducing moment for children as well, probably for that very reason.

And, as is perhaps the case with more neighbors than not these days, Rabbit and Squirrel live right across from one another, yet they keep to themselves. They don’t even bother to say hello.

Then LaReau and Magoon widen our perspective a bit and shrink our protagonists’ worlds some as well when we find out that, indeed, Rabbit and Squirrel’s gardens are not theirs after all. One morning, Rabbit wakes to find that “{s}omeone had pulled up her crunchiest carrots. Someone had removed her leafiest lettuce.” As we can see here, it’s a big honkin’ human, but Rabbit doesn’t know that; she doesn’t spot that hand. Neither does Squirrel when the same thing happens to him one night: someone snaps off “his sweetest sweet peas.”

So, Rabbit heads over to Squirrel’s, and Squirrel eventually also heads over to Rabbit’s, and each declares the other a pest with an added extra bonus, “Stay away from my garden—or else!” And, as you can see from this illustration, Magoon plays this up for laughs — and successfully — what with Squirrel’s half-asleep toothbrush / tighty-whitey moment here:

War is declared after Squirrel wakes up to find all his vegetables plucked from his garden. As Rabbit is eating a yummy salad, including some fresh tomatoes and peas (it’s not clear to me if she plucked all his vegetables after being called a “pest” or if it was perhaps the gardener after all), Squirrel retaliates in a particularly nasty way. “You are my sworn enemy!” they declare to one another. Grrrr.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but what I love is that LaReau refuses to give us a pat ending. This is not a tidy, morally prescriptive tale about fighting and bad manners for young children (but then if you know LaReau’s books, you know she has more respect for children than that). To be sure, it is, as the publisher blurb puts it, a “cautionary tale about how jumping to conclusions can turn minor misunderstandings into major meltdowns,” something children understand all too well. But LaReau leaves it all enticingly open-ended, making this a great book for talking to children about such conclusion-jumping and melt-downing — but LaReau is never too in-their-face about it. Children can spot those saccharine endings from a mile off. LaReau’s tales are always sugar-free. Just honest. And funny as all get-out. Darn tootin’.

Magoon’s illustrations, created digitally, are cozy when they need to be (in the opening, as we see Rabbit and Squirrel in their comfy homes) and mischievous and action-packed when the war is launched. And, as mentioned, he includes just the right amount of humor and character details which engage the reader: Rabbit waking up in her bunny slippers, Squirrel’s acorn-shaped bedposts and plant holders. His palette here is very earth-toned, which is quite fitting, but there are little splashes of color — Rabbit’s rose-colored shirt, Squirrel’s pre-war, bright red tomatoes, and the bright green of the cover with that clever pea-vine title.

A welcome cautionary tale for the youngest of readers, and I hope LaReau and Magoon keep joining forces to create picture books.

* * * * * * *

Last but not least, and also released by Harcourt, is a picture book from a first-time author, Jim Averbeck, and HOO BOY, I hope he makes some more (actually, according to this page at his site, he’s got another somewhere). In a Blue Room (to be released at the beginning of April) is illustrated by Tricia Tusa, whose illustrations for last year’s Fred Stays With Me! (written by Nancy Coffelt) blew me away (reviewed here in August).

This is an ethereal little gem of a book that works as a bedtime charmer, and if you’re one looking for curricular connections, this is a nice choice for books about the five senses as well. It’s the story of Alice: “In a blue room, Alice bounces, wide-awake past bedtime.” Here she is (and thanks to Harcourt for the spreads):


Illustration from IN A BLUE ROOM by Jim Averbeck, illustration © 2008 by Tricia Tusa, posted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Man, do I love Tricia Tusa’s art work. Just look at that composition! And in the next spread, not pictured, we see just her feet, all in mid-leap off her bed, as her mother brings in some flowers for her room to help her sleep. She also eventually brings a steaming hot cup of tea, a soft quilt, and lullaby bells to sing her to sleep. Alice protests each time: She wants blue only for her blue room. But with each gift brought, Alice grows more and more weary. With his uncluttered, lyrical text, Averbeck brings the reader a host of sensual delights: lilacs and lilywhites, which “give off a gentle scent”; orange tea cooling in a brown cup; a “silky-soft and warm . . . quilt of red and green”; and yellow lullaby bells on black strings, chiming “softly in the window breze.”

And is Alice’s room blue? Nope. She’s got her trusty blue blanket there, which she uses to help her get air-borne before great fatigue hits, but then — when Alice starts to murmur about the moon and her mother clicks off the light in her room — we see what she means: “Off goes the lamp and in comes the moon, bathing everything in its pale blue light. Blue flowers. Blue tea. Blue quilt. Blue bells.” Tusa takes the reader further and further out with her perspective — an aerial view from Alice’s ceiling near her window, a view from outside her window, as the lullaby bells twinkle visibly out in the night; and then this lovely spread:


Illustration from IN A BLUE ROOM by Jim Averbeck, illustration © 2008 by Tricia Tusa, posted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

And, as Alice finally sleeps in her blue room, she takes us out even further, but I’ll leave that for you to discover when you go pick up this book, which I can’t recommend highly enough. It’s a real charmer, this one, and I look forward to what Averbeck brings us next. I can’t imagine a more fitting illustrator having been chosen for this title, too.

A sublime read, which manages to celebrate the tangible joys of this world as well as end on quite the heavenly, celestial note.

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17 comments to “Illustration Matters: War and Peas with Scott Magoon and Tricia Tusa’s Beautiful Blue Room”

  1. Ooh, purty. I was going to point out that the room was not in fact blue but I just kept reading, and then it was in a cool, lovely light. Nice!

    Can’t wait to see the rest of the Demented Picture Books list. Heh. Probably some overlap with MotherReader’s Weird ones.


  2. So right about the basic naming, Jules. We had a hermit crab named Crawler, and a guinea pig named Fuzzy.

    That last blue moon spread is so, so lovely…


  3. Slightly demented picture books..what is it about this combination of words that made me laugh?

    Such lovely pictures.


  4. Thanks for the reviews, Jules. Both books look absolutely wonderful. Love the illos with the big hand picking the lettuce, and the blue moon . . .


  5. I am in love with that blue moon.

    TadMack, Whenever Mother Reader designates something a Weird-Ass Picture Book, I know I’m going to love it.


  6. Wow, LaReau and Magoon’s book looks AMAZING. I love how kids will name their animals after a person they know. “Um, I’ll call this one Kelly!” And I protest with a “HEY, but it’s a dog, I’m not a dog!”

    Tricia has a very delicate hand, and it’s lovely!


  7. Thanks for giving us a sneak peak at RABBIT & SQUIRREL. It’s the pb I’m most looking forward to having in my hot, little hands. Well, now that I’ve already received my copy of A BIRTHDAY FOR COW!, that is.

    Oh, how much do I love Harcourt pbs?!

    Some of my favorite slightly demented pbs:

    Ugly Fish
    Wolves
    Tadpole’s Promise
    Hush, Little Dragon


  8. I want more demented picture books! Woo!


  9. “In a Blue Moon” is such an amazing delight of a book. It has the feeling of an about-to-be classic.

    Thanks for the great reviews.


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  13. [...] Tricia Tusa (interviewed June 11) on illustrating Jim Averbeck’s In a Blue Room: “What a pleasure it was finding that FedEx package on my doorstep one night. I was carrying [...]


  14. [...] Oh, and I must digress for a moment and quickly add the other two are Jim Averbeck’s In a Blue Room with illustrations from Tricia Tusa (Harcourt) and Bonny Becker’s A Visitor for Bear with [...]


  15. I was blown away by In a Blue Room. We checked it out at the library a few months ago and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. We got it again this week and my daughter and I made some lullaby bells for her room today. She held them up and said, “now they can sing me to sleep.”


  16. Vanessa, that is excellent. How did you all make them?


  17. [...] of the critically-acclaimed Except If and winner of a Charlotte Zolotow Honor for his first book, In a Blue Room. He lives in San Francisco with his partner and their dog. He can be found online at [...]


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