Is it bad that the first thing I thought when I picked up this title was, "Oh! An Etch-a-Sketch book". I can be forgiven for this. After all, when a book's gimmick is identical to that of a beloved childhood toy, you're automatically going to associate the two together. And, I might add, to the book's advantage. If everyone that picks up, "Follow the Line" gets the same warm fuzzy feeling they get when they think of playing with their Etch-a-Sketches, it'll be justly deserved. This is a rather amusing little title with an equally amusing premise that's bound to be read over and over again by a certain segment of the child population.
The book actually begins with its cover. Starting with a line that begins at the bottom of the "F" in the title, "Follow The Line", a single white stripe spells out all the letters against a deep black background and then goes off the side of the cover. The line moves across the bookflap, onto the endpapers, around the publication information on the title page, and with a flip we suddenly find ourselves in a city. Buildings, windows, steps, etc. are created by a single sinuous line alongside a brightly colored setting. As we follow the streak we encounter questions about the number of flowers or TV antennas around. When the line escapes off the page, we too escape and find ourselves now creating faces and people and babies and dogs. The book continues in this manner throughout. The line never breaks or cheats and following it means twisting, turning, plummeting, and soaring according to the illustrator's whims. Finally, at the end, the line leaps across the endpapers, onto the bookflap, and to the words, "The End", situated on the book's back cover. Simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating.
Laura Ljungkvist may well fall into the category of Author/Illustrators Who Are Too Cool By Half. First of all, check out Ms. Ljungkvist's website for this book at followtheline dot com. She's a design maven who high-tailed it from Sweden to Brooklyn (currently the hippest borough) and ended up working (according to her bookflap), "in fields ranging from fashion to finance". Sheesh! And now she wants to do picture books. Who'd have thunk it? I've always had a kind of touch and go relationship with picture books that dwell in the realm of good design. Either they go absolutely crazy like, "The Graphic Alphabet" by David Pelletier did (it's perhaps THE most ridiculous "children's" book ever constructed with good design in mind) or they come across as simply sublime, as in David Carter's, "One Red Dot". Ljungkvist, I'm happy to say, falls squarely in the "sublime" category. The illustrations in this book are crisp and clear with fabulous colors against a kind of retro-fifties style. At the same time, Ljungkvist has done what Pelletier never deigned to do. She's made each and every page interesting for kids. Sure, they could just follow the line with their finger, but that's not the only amusing aspect to this title. On each page the author has slipped in questions like, "How many fences are there?" or "How many babies are awake?". It's a line game, sure, but it's a counting game and an I spy game as well. Clever girl.
One critic of the book pointed out that the images in this title aren't ALL created by the line. When you look at the forest scene with its skull-like mushrooms (it took me a while to figure out what they exactly were) there are plenty of stumps and trees and even a pond with waterlilies that aren't part of the line itself. Imagine how dull the book might have been if EVERYTHING was made up by the line, though. It might be an interesting exercise, but I applaud Ljungkvist's ability to incorporate simple forms and figures alongside the wacked-out nuttiness of her over-compesating line.
In a funny way, the book this reminded me the most of was that old crazy classic by Ann Jonas, "Round Trip". Of course, the conceit of that book was less follow-the-line as it was read-the-book-upside-down-and-rightside-up. In any case, these two picture books would pair beautifully together. If you have a kid who likes one, they'll probably like the other as well. You might even want to go a little crazy and pair the book with Norton Juster's deeply amusing, "The Dot and the Line: A Romance In Lower Mathematics". Only if you're feeling quirky, mind you. As it stands, "Follow the Line", is the perfect gift to give to a child so as to appear intelligent to the child's parents while still handing the kid something they might actually enjoy. A fun and enticing item.