Opening the Door: 3 Picture Books Look at Life on the Other Side

By Bruce Handy

THE LONGEST STORM
Written and illustrated by Dan Yaccarino

INSIDE CAT
Written and illustrated by Brendan Wenzel

THE IMPOSSIBLE MOUNTAIN
Written and illustrated by David Soman

“No one knew how long it would last. We were going to have to stay inside, maybe for a long while.”

That’s a quote from the author-illustrator Dan Yaccarino’s “The Longest Storm.” I don’t know for sure whether this plain-spoken but boldly graphic picture book was intended to resonate with recent history — picture books can take years to produce — but resonate it does. Yaccarino’s storm lasts for days, maybe even a week or more. Ha, any contemporary reader may well scoff, that’s nothing when it comes to being cooped up. But until paging through “The Longest Storm” and two other new picture books that may or may not have been inspired by life during Covid-time, I hadn’t quite realized what an infantilizing experience lockdown had been, especially in its earliest days, when so many of us were reluctant or unable to venture outdoors at all. Like toddlers, we not only had limited autonomy, but we were also living in a world where inside-outside was once again a primal divide. If you’re looking for silver linings, the pandemic at least encouraged us not to take the quotidian for granted.

This, of course, is fertile picture book territory: the fresh eyes on absolutely everything that Margaret Wise Brown called “the first great wonder at the world.” There are plenty of recent picture books meant to explain the pandemic to children, to soothe them in the manner of stories about dead pets or grandparents. There is even a picture book biography of Anthony Fauci that might make a fine baby gift with which to needle your Fox News-addicted cousin. But “The Longest Storm” digs into the experience of lockdown — the sheer endurance required and the psychic toll. The story ends with the opening of a door onto an outside world that is both exhilarating and humbling. So too, with a little less feeling and a lot more overt wit, does Brendan Wenzel’s “Inside Cat,” another visually sophisticated tale steeped in confinement. But once past the threshold … then what? That’s a question for David Soman’s sumptuously illustrated “The Impossible Mountain,” a parable about conquering fear and venturing out into the world. Which also strikes a chord, no? As might the word “impossible” itself.

Yaccarino’s book is centered on a family headed by a single father — photos glimpsed in the opening spread imply he’s a widower — with a preteen daughter and two younger twins. The story is about the grind of being housebound: the aggravation, the fraying nerves and emotions. “Being home together like that, all the time, felt strange. But soon it went from strange to bad, to worse. And just when it felt like it couldn’t get any worse … It did. We were completely sick of each other.”

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    That terse, tense It did accompanies a picture of unshaven dad blowing his stack — arms raised, mouth in mid-growl — bathed in a Munch-worthy mustard yellow that we will see thrice more: in a terrifying flash of lightning that serves as the book’s pivot point; in reassuring candlelight when the power goes off; and, with its hue gently muted, as beckoning sunlight when the storm lifts. Anger, terror, comfort and release all wrung from yellow. Yaccarino’s flat but expressionist colors do more work than a casual glance might reveal.

    This is a deceptively simple story with real emotional and visual depth, concluding with an acknowledgment that happy endings often leave work yet to be done. That, too, hits home, or have you forgotten the brief, Arab Spring-like optimism of last June?

    Wenzel is a master of perspective. His “They All Saw a Cat” (a Caldecott honoree) depicted the same animal as seen by a kid, a dog, a mouse and so on. A Stone Sat Still” pulled off something similar yet more profound for a mere rock, ending on an elegiac note of loss and memory. “Inside Cat” is also about point of view, but just one — the title character’s. Wenzel’s rhyming text begins: “Inside Cat knows many windows, finds a view wherever it goes. Wanders. Wonders. Gazes. Gapes. Sees the world through many shapes.” Inside Cat is lucky that it lives not in a small Upper West Side apartment (like some cats I know) but in a vast home with many, many windows of many, many dimensions across many, many floors. That’s a lot of looking, as promised by the huge eyes dominating the book’s cover. The humor lies in Inside Cat’s partial-view assumptions. Is that firefighter really climbing a ladder to the clouds? Are we positive there’s a dinosaur on the unseen end of that teeter-totter?

    As someone once said, there are known unknowns and unknown unknowns, but tell that to this overconfident pet. “Inside Cat might know it ALL!” the story concludes. “Every view and every floor. All the windows, world, and more. Top to bottom. Head to toe. Nothing more for you to … Oh.” With that diminutive last word Inside Cat strides out the front door into a vast, jumbled, visually cacophonous cityscape — a page turn to rival the cut to color that accompanied Judy Garland’s first steps in Oz. Again, I don’t know if Wenzel’s book was conceived during the pandemic — like Yaccarino’s and Soman’s books, it will surely outlast the present tense — but its jokes and rueful wisdom land a little harder in 2021 than they would have in, say, 2019.

    If “The Longest Storm” and “Inside Cat” end with tentative steps beyond too-familiar borders, that’s the starting point for “The Impossible Mountain,” which takes place in what you might call a fairy tale-adjacent neighborhood — a vaguely Northern European village circled by a high stone wall. The effect is a bit like living at the bottom of a nuclear power plant’s cooling tower. Our heroine, Anna, and her little brother, Finn, “had always been told that the Wall kept them safe from a scary, unknown world.” (Soman’s tale resonates with more than one contemporary headline.) But Anna’s eyes and spirit crave more. One day she and Finn climb the Wall and see a high, beautiful mountain in the distance. A few pages later, they’re off to scale it, a trek in which they’re aided by a mountain goat and the Great and Terrible Bear they’ve been warned about, who turns out to be a paternal soft touch. And what do they find when they finally reach the peak? More mountains, “all of them waiting to be climbed.” Another happy ending with more challenges ahead.

    Soman’s gorgeous, painterly illustrations — watercolors mixed with gouache and pencil — play gracefully with scale, doing justice to both mighty landscape and small, intrepid siblings. Bonus credit for inducing what I believe is the second twinge of vertigo I’ve ever experienced reading a picture book (the first being Mordicai Gerstein’s “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers,” about the aerialist Philippe Petit and the original World Trade Center). Honestly, after a year and a half stuck indoors to varying degrees, a little vertigo is a tonic.

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