Sometimes you just want to show a kid a beautiful picture book. Sometimes you also want that book to be recent. That's the tricky part. Not that there aren't pretty little picture books churned out of publishing houses every day. Of course there are. But when you want something that distinguishes itself and draws attention without sparkles or glitter the search can be a little fraught. We children's librarians sit and wait for true beauty to fall into our laps. The last time I saw it happen was Jerry Pinkney's The Lion & the Mouse. Now I'm seeing it again with Laura Vaccaro Seeger's Green. I mean just look at that cover. I vacillate between wanting to smear those thick paints with my hands and wanting to lick it to see if it tastes like green frosting. If my weirdness is any kind of a litmus test, kids will definitely get a visceral reaction when they flip through the pages. I know we're talking colors here but if I were to capture this book in a single word then there's only one that would do: Delicious.
Open the book and the first pictures you see are of a woodland scene. Two leaves hang off a nearby tree as the text reads "forest green". Turn the page and those leaves, cut into the paper itself, flip over to two fishies swimming in the deep blue sea. A tortoise swims lazily by, bubbles rising from its head ("sea green"). Another page and the holes of the bubbles are turned over to become the raised bumps on a lime. And so it goes with each new hole or cut connecting one kind of green to another. We see khaki greens, wacky greens, slow greens and glow greens until at last Seeger fills the page with boxes filled with different kinds of green. This is followed by a stop sign and the words "never green" against an autumn background. On the next page it is winter and "no green" followed by an image of a boy planting something. The final spread shows a man and his daughter gazing at a tree. The description: "forever green". You bet.
Can a color be political? Absolutely. In a given election season you'll see red vs. blue, after all. In children's books colors would historically be associated with races or countries (hence the flare up around titles like Two Reds). Green occupies a hazy middle ground here. We all know about the Green Party or green activism. However, it's not as if you'll find many parents forbidding their children to read this book because it pushes a pro-environment agenda. Seeger is subtler than that. Yes, her book does end with humans planting and admiring trees, but thanks to her literary restraint the message isn't thwapping you over the head with a tire iron. She could have turned her "no green" two-page spread into some barren landfill-esque wasteland. Instead we see a snow scene. This is followed by the only silent two pages in the book, showing a boy planting a tree. Finally a man and his daughter (presumably the boy grown up since the barn in the background appears to be the same) look up at a fully-grown tree's foliage as the text reads, "forever green". It's a message there for the taking, but only if you're smart enough to spot it.
Ms. Seeger has never quite looked like anybody else. Artistically, I mean. Her style is a unique combination of die-cuts and thick paints on textured backgrounds. If Eric Carle made die-cuts classy, Seeger takes them one step further and makes them an art in and of themselves. No other artist has ever used them to the same degree. Seeger not only understands the inherent drama in the turn of a page, she makes it the lynchpin of her success. In this book you spend part of the time admiring the art, part of the time trying to predict where the die-cuts will appear, and part of the time flipping back and forth between pages so that you can figure out why you couldn't see the tiger eyes hidden in the wooden table or the fireflies lurking in the leaves. The danger is that the whole book could come off feeling like some enormous gimmick. Instead, you get a sense of interconnectedness. The green of a pea tied into the green of a blade of grass tied into the green of a gecko's skin. In Green there's purpose and meaning above beyond how cool it all looks. When you successfully combine those two things you end up with a picture book that crosses over from merely good into the realm of the exceptional.
On the publication page the description of this book says, "Illustrations and simple, rhyming text explore the many shades of the color green." And while technically true it sort of misses the point of the book. Seeger has quietly shown us a delicate world threatened but enduring. Kids won't perceive the threat. They'll just see how many cool things in the world sport an innumerable number of shades of green. They'll see the cool green of oceans and the nighttime green of uncurled ferns. They'll see and process and remember the book that made it clear that of all the colors of the rainbow, green is the one we need for life itself. A book that is simultaneously subtle and enormously eye-catching. Call it poetry with purpose.
For ages 4-8.