When most children’s picture books have rabbits and bears romping around in blank space, it’s exhilarating to come across illustrations that have a sense of landscape – where a child can lose himself not just in the story but in the imagery and be transported into an unknown world that feeds imagination and builds up a sense of line, texture, colour and awareness of visual language.
The landscape in Winter’s Child by Angela McAllister and illustrated by Grahame Baker Smith, published by Templar, had my 8-year-old granddaughter turning and looking at each page with anticipated delight before she began reading. The author and illustrator have collaborated previously on a picture book – Leon and the Place Between, was short-listed for the Kate Greenaway and Grahame Baker Smith’s picture book, FArTHER, won the award in 2011.
Winter’s Child is set in an unforgiving landscape that seems to crackle with cold. A small house stands isolated in an icy valley with sunlight bouncing off an entirely crystalized world. A ship lying frozen in ice reminds me of the ships stranded in the sands of the Namibian desert along the skeleton coast. Where are the sailors? And in Winter’s Child, where is everyone? What has happened that a boy and his mother and nana are living so isolated and alone?
Tom spends his days skating and ski-ing through a landscape that throws sharp shadows and where blue skies bristle with hoary frost. When a barefooted boy makes his appearance and invites Tom to play, they build snow horses that hang with ice manes and play chimes on icicles that hang from the trees.
But winter is taking long to disappear. In Tom’s cottage they have run out of food and nana is poorly. There is no wood left in the woodpile so Tom burns his skis and the ladder of his tree house. When the strange bare-footed boy says he has to leave, there are hints of why winter has lasted so long. My granddaughter stopped for long moments to look at the mysterious clues in the illustrations – the icy, stamping horses with their blazing emerald eyes, (or are they tourmalines?) the tossing manes and cold snorting breath.
I thought of the white horses in Roy Campbell’s poem – Horses of the Camargue.
But in a shroud of silence like the dead,
I heard a sudden harmony of hooves,
And, turning, saw afar
A hundred snowy horses unconfined,
The silver runaways of Neptune's car
Racing, spray-curled, like waves before the wind.
Sons of the Mistral, fleet
As him with whose strong gusts they love to flee,
Who shod the flying thunders on their feet
And plumed them with the snortings of the sea;
Theirs is no earthly breed
Who only haunts the verges of the earth
And only on the sea's salt herbage feed-
Surely the great white breakers gave them birth.
And I wondered if both Angela McAllister and Grahame Baker-Smith might have drawn on them too.
Frozen waterfalls and icicles melting and the first crocuses, are depicted by Grahame Baker Smith, not just in vast double-page spreads with small figures in an overwhelming frozen landscape, but in tiny, exquisite close-up vignettes reminiscent of the very best in Shaun Tan’s work.
My only wish for Tom is that the flowery, Spring girl won’t be too genteel. My hope is that she will have a naughty, impish manner and that she and Tom will explore the mossy caves, catch fish with their hands, swing from trees and run as wild as Tom did with Winter’s Child.
In choosing pictures books, the deciding questions are... Will the landscape mesmerize and tease the imagination and will the illustrations be so powerful, they’ll be remembered into adulthood? How many of your own picture books do you remember not through the words, but the pictures? The magical forest that set your mind racing, the tiny details of mushroom houses… I must be careful here as I might be doing myself out of a job. But illustration and word work in tandem. Why else would I remember the words of Horses of the Camargue from my childhood? But when you find a book like Winter’s Child, you know the images will be remembered for a long, long time.
Dianne Hofmeyr’s latest picture book illustrated by Piet Grobler, The Magic Bojabi Tree, has been nominated for the 2014 Kate Greenaway list.