Take your summer vacation with Lynne Rae Perkins

h1 June 6th, 2007 by jules

Pictures From Our Vacation
by Lynne Rae Perkins
Greenwillow Books
April 2007
(library copy)

It’s summer in Lynne Rae Perkins’ new picture book, in which a family takes a trip to “the old family farm. No one lived at the farm anymore, but our grandparents were spending the summer there and we were going to visit them.” The story, told from the perspective of one of the two young children in the family, is packed with the child-centered detail for which Perkins is known (and, as usual for Perkins, by bringing us the idiosyncrasies of one particular family, she manages to bring us the universal). Getting things rolling right away on the title and CIP page, Perkins shows us that the children have some pretty vivid ideas of what this vacation could be (“maybe we will stop at a motel with a pool”). The boy dreaming of mountain climbing and the father dreaming of butter tarts, we see how “vacation” can be defined in wildly different ways, depending on the family member. And, pulling out tiny cameras and notebooks for the children before the trip begins, the mother provides our young narrator with some tools that can be used to bring us, as readers, a multi-media (her photos and notebook writing) account of their vacation and that can be used as a receptacle for her memories.

On their two-day drive to the family farm, our narrator shows us the imaginative ways in which children occupy their time — and minds — on road trips (her brother may be sleeping in the back seat, but next to him, our narrator tells us in great detail and, in the form of a large thought bubble, precisely what the hotel-in-her-mind, The Blue Motel, would be like). After arriving at the farm, the children are disappointed in the wet weather (“no one could believe how much it was raining. Our grandmother said it hadn’t rained for weeks”), and the television only got three channels: “the striped channel, the channel that showed what you could watch if you had a better TV, and the French channel.” After a frustrating journey to find their father’s favorite childhood “secret swimming spot,” complete with a fast-approaching summer storm, our narrator asks her mother, “‘Can we do something fun tomorrow?'” But in response she tells her there will be a memorial service for her father’s Great-aunt Charlotte (who was quite the maverick, the young girl learns). Thinking that “this was turning out to be a stupid vacation,” a whole slew of family members, including a ton of cousins, shows up. And suddenly the camera disappears: “I didn’t take any pictures that day. Or the next . . . it’s hard to take a picture of a story someone tells, or what it feels like when you’re rolling down a hill or falling asleep in a house full of cousins and uncles and aunts . . . But those kinds of pictures I can keep in my mind.”

Particularly effective in this engaging picture book is how Perkins’ all-inclusive, thorough thought balloons say a great deal more than the photos that the young boy and girl snap and paste in their notebooks, just one way of showing the unexpected destinations, in more ways than one, of a long journey of any sort — and how truly ineffable some of those experiences can be, no matter if you’re armed with a camera and pen (in the words of Sam Phillips, “the places I go are never there”). And the abundant detail isn’t contained to just those thought bubbles; in the spread of the family visit at the farm after the memorial service, Perkins uses practically every inch of the spread — and lots of self-contained circles, pockets of information, showing primarily the activities of the children (“this is a really good dessert we invented”; “We climbed some trees”; “Everyone had a story about poison ivy. Watch out, it’s everywhere!”; “Our cousin found an insect called a walking stick”). Another of her effective techniques for packing in the details (but with somehow managing to never overwhelm the story) is to include rather spectral images-of-the-young-girl’s-mind, such as the illustration in which she shows the room after all her cousins had left, but drawn in white lines, as if ghosts, are her cousins in their sleeping bags: “Everyone had to leave after a few days, but even when they did, the old house didn’t feel empty the way it had at first.” As The Horn Book review nailed it, “Perkins {as with many of her previous picture books} is exhilaratingly free in her approach to the picture book form.”

Perkins perfectly captures childhood vacations — that is, how children start out aiming for one thing (or more) at the endlessly-exciting outset of such an adventure (what child doesn’t get excited about motels on road trips?). But, in the end — such as with the lasting, forever-ingrained memories of time spent with family — it’s often what you do not expect to stay with you that is exactly what does remain. In other words, as the Booklist review wrote, “many books idealize the joys of family vacations. Here’s a more honest look at the way those trips make memories.”

One comment to “Take your summer vacation with Lynne Rae Perkins”

  1. I haven’t pulled this book off the shelf but now I will. I guess I just assumed it was another cutesy books about summer adventures. Thanks for setting me straight.

    Oh, and I tagged you for a meme …

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