Monday, November 8, 2010

Palazzo Inverso by D.B. Johnson

Palazzo Inverso
by D.B. Johnson
Reading level: Ages 4-8
Hardcover: 32 pages
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children (May 3, 2010)
ISBN-13: 978-0547239996
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Young Mauk is apprenticed to a Master architect who is currently constructing a grand palace. To Mauk, everyday is the same: wake up, work for his master (aka sharpen his pencils), and repeat. One morning, Mauk awakes to find things are not as they should be. Upside-down arches, stairs with no destination, bricks falling on the ceiling--the palace is literally turned upside down in confusion. Mauk confesses that he had been turning the palace's drawing plan all along, causing his Master to unintentionally design and construct the Palazzo in nonsensical ways.

This topsy-turvy journey through a chaotic palace and back again is inspired by the drawings of M.C. Escher and indulges the child-like wonder of imagining what it would be like to turn the world upside down.

I am familiar with D.B. Johnson's soft geometric pastel work from his other books (including The Henry Books), but never have I liked it as much as in this book. In fact, I much prefer the elegant use of black and white and stylized people as opposed to animals in his other picture books. In homage to Escher's work, he is able to successfully create elaborate environments that can be viewed and enjoyed from two perspectives--not an easy feat! The drawings are quite soft and beautiful, with a luminous magical quality befitting this surreal story.

This was not the most well-written book in the world. While it was unbelievably unique, I found the actual writing periodically awkward and overall rather nebulous. In a different writer's voice it might have become more poetic and dream-like than abstract and borderline-confusing as it is here.

From the start, I wasn't exactly sure what was going on, as we aren't given any sort of establishing shot to ground us in reality. In fact, we don't really know that these events are even all that out of the ordinary, because we don't have a normal day to compare it to. We are thrown into a world that begins and ends without gravity, forced to go with what we see and read with no real chance to get our footing first. Another classic example of SHOW, Don't TELL. Don't tell us Mauk's life is boring, show us his life is boring! Then we get to experience the craziness of his newly disoriented world with the same surprise and excitement that he does.

From a design perspective, this book is achieving quite a bit. Creating a book that can be read from back to front, front to back, and turned at any point in the story and still readable is a tremendous accomplishment. But it's not with out a bit of awkwardness. 

To begin with, it is forced to handle the very difficult task of laying out text in what is a very minimal space. There is little room left for type on each page (a small strip around the edges of the illustrations) with no ability for paragraph structure. Thus the sentences have a either sort of unintended run-on feeling or a choppy feeling, at times breaking in awkward points and disrupting the readability of the story. Occasionally a new sentence will begin that is only one word long, forcing you to turn the page to complete the sentence--something that seems more out of necessity to fit all the words within the length of the book rather than as an intentional design choice. For that reason, I actually had to read the story through twice in order to sufficiently take in the words and illustrations at the same time.

Had each illustration been given just one corresponding sentence (like a picture caption), it would have allowed me to read the story, then look at the illustration, and then turn the page. Knowing that the flow of the text on the page is directly related to the experience of a book, I felt rushed through the story in a distracted way. And while one could argue that it parallels the disorienting chaos happening in the actual story, to me it did not make for a the most ideal reader experience.

Children being read to will likely not have this problem, because they can absorb the pictures while hearing the words. But trying to do both at the same time was a bit of a burden.

All that taken into consideration, this book is still a fascinating example of what can be achieved by thinking outside the box. A book that can be experienced one way and then turned around and read again is, well, AWESOME. I have a lot of respect for its ambition and only fault its execution slightly because I wanted it to be the coolest book I'd read in awhile. It falls a bit short of that status but not due to its imagination or cohesive conceptual innovation.

This book was not as engaging as it could have been. When I picked it up at the book store my heart fluttered a bit with excitement, thinking I had stumbled upon a true gem of a book. And while it does succeed in many levels, it may have been a bit overly ambitious. The idea of the the book is better than the experience of reading it. But children will enjoy the playful, wacky world where the unexpected happens and walking on the ceiling is actually possible. After all, who hasn't dreamed about that when they were a kid?

Lovely to look at but slightly less fun to read.


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