“Cal is not the readin’ type. Living way high up in the Appalachian Mountains, he’d rather help Pap plow or go out after wandering sheep than try some book learning. Nope. Cal does not want to sit stoney-still reading some chicken scratch. But that Book Woman keeps coming just the same. She comes in the rain. She comes in the snow. She comes right up the side of the mountain, and Cal knows that’s not easy riding. And all just to lend his sister some books. Why, that woman must be plain foolish — or is she braver than he ever thought?” –from Books.SimonandSchuster.com
When I saw the cover of That Book Woman and recognized that lovely loose artistic style, I just had to pick it up. Mr. Small, I’m a huge huge fan of your art, which I’m sure I’ve said before, because I’ve reviewed others of your books on this site. Still, can’t hurt to say it again–your art, particularly the picturebooks, make me giddy with joy and extraordinarily jealous of the way your style makes it look so easy. I know most good artists make their work look easy, but for some reason the kind of line you have and the way it flows makes me imagine that you just touch pen to paper and suddenly amazing things happen by some sort of crazy magic.
With the fangirling out of the way, now I can get on to what a visual pleasure this book is for me just in its own right. The composition, full of wide pulled-back shots and extreme close-up foregrounds, keeps every page fresh and makes me really feel the wide open space, the distance from this hilltop cabin to any other kind of civilization. The colors are understated and used in unexpected ways to great effect, and the overall messy sort of look is really endearing and evocative. It matches the text, the pleasantly messy dialect, to a T. (What a weird phrase, to a T. Where on earth does it come from? Hmm, I sense internet research in my future.)
Of course, the words are entirely brilliant too, Ms. Henson–it’s fairly rare to see a picturebook that’s written in free verse, when so much poetry for children is rhyming. I love the measured way you and Cal tell his story, the gentle rocking flow that, in my head, mimics the trusty, steady motion of the Book Woman’s horse. And what a truly fantastic message! That books are as necessary for living as food and shelter, that encouraging a reader is worth such effort through hardship and the elements, and that a reader can be made out of anyone, if they only want to try it. I want to meet the Book Woman, and have her bring books like this one to me.
When this book came up in mock Caldecott discussion with my book club last year, there were a variety of reactions–perhaps it isn’t everyone’s style–but I think it’s lovely and brilliant, and every time I re-read it I’m struck in some way by a detail of the art or by a turn of phrase that makes me glad I have it on my shelf. Five stars from me, hooray for books!