SILENT DAYS, SILENT DREAMS Written and illustrated by Allen Say. 63 pp. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $21.99. (Picture book; ages 7 and up)
LINES Written and illustrated by Suzy Lee. 40 pp. Chronicle. $17.99. (Picture book; ages 4 to 8)
MALALA’S MAGIC PENCIL By Malala Yousafzai. Illustrated by Kerascoet. 38 pp. Little, Brown. $17.99. (Picture book; ages 4 to 8)
In this digital age, with computer-generated works able to replicate traditional media seamlessly, it’s easy to forget the humble pencil. But in the hands of an artist, it is a mighty tool: Three new picture books show us how it can give those who are silent expression, the ordinary magic and the powerless power.
Allen Say’s “Silent Days, Silent Dreams” is a fascinating biography of James Castle, a self-taught 20th-century American artist who was deaf from birth and never learned to read and write. The book opens with a small charcoal drawing of a baby wailing — the mouth a swath of blackness — and we are immediately struck by the silence of the picture. This image — a human howling to be heard in a medium with no sound — seems to encapsulate the essence of Castle.
So it is fitting that it’s Say’s art that truly tells Castle’s story. Written in the voice of a nephew of Castle, the tale is spare and almost detached, but the images reveal the torment of his silent, lonely childhood and the passion of creation. When young James has his art supplies taken away, he creates his own pencil with a sharpened stick and soot mixed with his spit. Say’s recreations of Castle’s work illustrates a mesmerizing vision of the world. (The book does not include any reproductions of Castle’s actual art.) The heartbreak of Castle discarding, at one point, his artwork is shown in a bleak charcoal rendering — his arms blurring with fluttering sheets of paper, making it seem as if he is truly casting away parts of himself.
When Castle’s art is finally discovered by the art world and he has his own show, it is almost an anticlimax: “The turnout was good and a few pieces were sold.” Many readers may find it unsatisfactory. But Say, a Caldecott Medal winner for “Grandfather’s Journey,” has given us a portrait of the purest of artists — one unconcerned about receiving glory for his art, yet desperately passionate about its creation. There is much to ponder here about how an artist’s mind works.
In the transcendent wordless picture book “Lines,” Suzy Lee (“Wave,” “Shadow”) uses her pencil to draw the reader into layers of her imagination. The book opens to a drawing of a blank page, with only a pencil and eraser. From there, we follow a lone, red-capped ice skater who glides on an expanse of white ice, her skates creating a trailing line behind here. She spins and twirls with exuberance, but when she attempts a spinning jump, her landing falters. It is only when the skater falls that we see that the ice has been the blank sheet of paper and the marks from her skates are pencil lines. The paper is temporary crumpled up as we are reminded of the beginning image, and, with a thrill, we realize we are seeing through the eyes of the artist as well as feeling her frustration. Luckily, the unseen artist reconsiders and smooths out her paper and the skater reappears. From there new skaters begin to jubilantly join the drawing, the hundreds of “mistake” lines and eraser marks becoming their skate tracks. The closing endpapers feature a drawing of an ice pond, presumably the artist’s finished piece, on a pile of sketches.
It’s a magical, inventive journey through the artistic process. The mistakes, as well as the perseverance, needed to create are charmingly personified by the skater. Her motion and body language are captured with marvelous skill, each drawn mark alive with quiet energy —rendering words unnecessary. “Lines” truly underscores Lee’s mastery of the wordless picture book form.
“Malala’s Magic Pencil,” the first picture book by the young human rights activist Malala Yousafzai, brings forth the pencil as an obvious symbol. We follow a young Malala who longs for a magic pencil like the one she sees on her favorite TV show. She first dreams of using it to make herself and others happy with small material goods, but one day, Malala notices a girl her own age sorting trash. She soon learns that education is not available for many children, especially girls. Malala sees outside of herself and begins to wish for a magic pencil so that she could “draw a better world.” Since none shows up, Malala dedicates herself to her schooling. When girls start dropping out of her school because of “powerful and dangerous men,” Malala realizes she can no longer wish for a magic pencil. She must use the ordinary one she has and writes her experiences for the world to see and help.
Adults will know the violent turn that Malala’s story then takes, but the book deals with her shooting artfully, telling children all they need to know with an almost completely black spread, showing only the back of Malala in a hospital gown with the words that “dangerous men tried to silence me. But they failed.” The remainder of the book shows Malala triumphing, sharing her message even louder and wider—working to make her wish for a better world true, using her own pencil.
The book itself is also a triumph, for it is a story with hard truths, yet it is accessible for young children. The artwork, by the husband-and-wife team Kerascoet, has its charms, especially the opening spread where Asian motifs of gold ink stream from Malala’s pencil and notebook. But it is the voice of the writing that wins over the reader. It has a genuine innocence, heartfelt without any pandering and completely respectful of the young reader. This is an excellent book to begin conversations about world injustice with children.
Artists’ tools have come a long way over the centuries. But as these three books remind us, as long as there are artists, there will be an important place for the pencil in our lives. It continues to be a forceful tool, revealing its powers to us in the passion of an artist, the struggles and joys of the creative journey, and the inspiration to fight injustice.