Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Word Pictures

In 1985, Patricia MacLachlan's SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL was published to uniformly glowing reviews. Several made note of how wonderful the illustrations were.

There was just one little problem.

SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL did not contain any illustrations.

Except for the evocative cover sketch by Marcia Sewall, this novella-length book doesn't include any pictures at all.

However, it's not surprising that readers come away from SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL with pictures in their mind's eye. The characters are so well-drawn that we can easily envision Anna, Caleb, Papa -- and especially their "plain and tall" visitor from Maine. We "see" the gifts that Sarah brings into their pioneer home: a collection of seashells, a perfectly round white stone, a cat with yellow eyes and, finally, a handful of blue, gray and green pencils representing the colors of the sea. And nearly every line of the spare, understated prose conjures up visions of the prairie -- the low skies, the wide fields splashed with Indian paintbrush and wild roses, the earth carpeted by hailstones that gleam in the sunlight after a thunderstorm.

The fact that Patricia MacLachlan is able to summon up such indelible images with such an economy of words (SARAH runs less than sixty pages) is nothing short of remarkable. This small gem of a novel won the 1986 Newbery Medal.

Since that time, Ms. MacLachlan has continued the story of the Witting family in four companion novels: SKYLARK (1994), CALEB’S STORY (2001), MORE PERFECT THAN THE MOON (2004), and GRANDFATHER’S DANCE (2006.) I can certainly understand the impulse to carry on with the story. There was a large audience of young readers anxious to know "what happened next." The author herself was probably curious to see where the story went as well (Sarah's tale had its origins in MacLachlan's family history and was briefly mentioned as an anecdote in her 1980 novel ARTHUR, FOR THE VERY FIRST TIME before being expanded into its own book.) Although these sequels are well-written and pleasant to read, none has the near-perfect quality of the archetypal novel that started it all -- a book with few words that somehow speaks volumes. A book with no illustrations that nonetheless conjures up unforgettable pictures in our minds.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm always on the hunt for great children's books and have recently discovered Bayard and their series of StoryBoxBooks, AdventureBoxBooks and DiscoveryBoxBooks (which has a special focus on teeth!) They have work by acclaimed children's books illustrator Helen Oxenbury appearing in the Storybox series for September. In addition to this, they also have some great activities for rainy days: http://www.storyboxbooks.com/potatoprinting.php, http://www.adventureboxbooks.com/macaroni-picture-frames.php, http://www.discoveryboxbooks.com/skittles.php Enjoy!