Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Book Review - An Analysis of Tricycle

I occasionally stumble across a picture book that takes my breath away. Tricycle by Elisa Amado, is not new, it came out sometime in 2007, and I never saw it at the booksellers. I came upon it this month in the library, where it sat rather unassumingly in the picture book area of the children's section. It was one in an armload of picture books that I checked out, and it was somewhere in the middle of the stack that I plopped down to read, one by one, one of many that I analyse and study each month in an effort to improve upon my own writing. When I got to Tricycle in my reading. It stopped me. I read it three times, and then counted the words and read it again, and then again.

Tricycle is about a girl, Margarita, who lives in a big beautiful house, surrounded by a big tall hedge. She climbs the tree in her backyard and sits in the branches. From this vantage point, she can see the volcano that sits in the distance, spewing fire and smoke on a daily basis. She can also see the shack next to her home where a poor family lives. Margarita sometimes climbs into the hedge, where she plays with Rosario, her little friend who lives in the shack with her brother and mother. One day, Margarita watches silently from her perch in the tree as Rosario and her brother steal her tricycle, dragging it to their side of the hedge, hiding it under a box.

In thirty-two pages and in less than one thousand words, a complete, beautiful story is brought magically to life. It has a heartbeat and a pulse that you don't normally see in the average picture book. The emotional build-up is slow and steady, with an effective use of the volcano - Fuego - as a symbol for the uncomfortable undercurrent between rich and poor, as well as the symbol of developing conscience in the child. The reader sees the difference between those who have, and those who have not, and the beginnings of conscience in a young child. Which is more important - a tricycle or friendship? Having possessions or having concern for others? What is the responsibility of a child - do you worry about yourself, or all of those around you? Do you lie to protect a friend? From the safety and comfort of her family, a child learns to have empathy and compassion for others, even if it means losing something in the process. Even if it means that others might not care as much about you.

The illustration by Alfonso Ruano is in the magic-realistic style. The dream-like quality of the scenes is often thought-provoking. I was struck by two illustrations in particular; the first of the two girls, Margarita and Rosario, meeting in the middle of the tall and perfectly manicured hedge, with Rosario's family's wash hanging from a line on one side, where the ground is barren and rocky. The second shows Margarita, sitting in her tall tree, gazing outward at Fuego in the distance. The size of the child in contrast to the large volcano, her tall tree, even the vastness of the landscape in front of her speaks volumes about how a child can often feel small and afraid.

After reading Tricycle, I checked on the publisher, not believing that a US publisher would take a chance on a story like this. As it turns out, Tricycle is published by a Canadian house, Groundwood Books, and distributed in the US by Publishers Group West in Berkeley. Groundwood Books is an imprint of House of Anansi Press, which began in 1967 as an independent press, focusing on publishing literary works by Canadian writers. Groundwood was established in 1978 and focuses on children's books by Canadian writers. The house receives some funding from the Canada Council for the Arts.

From the writer's standpoint, there is much to learn from. The story opens by setting a mood in the first scene: "I walk outside in my bare feet. The ground is wet and spiky but my feet don't hurt..." These simple words capture the essence of an innocent childhood, and the illustration by Alfonso Ruano present Margarita's priviledged lifestyle in a simple and understated manner. Additional clues are left in the story, scene by scene, so that the reader sees the difference between rich and poor. Childhood fears about personal safety and the safety of friends and family are succinctly explored through images of the volcano, Fuego. In one scene, Margarita worries "I hope fire doesn't fall on us from the sky," as she sits in the safe confines of her family compound, from the perch of her tall, strong tree.

Tricycle is an amazing book in so many ways. It has a rare, literary quality and simplicity of story that is generally difficult to find in today's mainstream picture book market. While it is not a book for very young children, it is a book for the parent who wants to opens doors to conversation between parent and child. Not every parent will agree with the choices made by the protagonist of this story. Perhaps not every child will agree or understand. Tricycle might be most appropriate for the emergent reader, one who isn't quite ready for chapter books, but who doesn't want to read "baby books." It is a story to talk about, to discuss, and to read again and again.

There is a harsh reality that the child reader will be exposed to, an emotional wallop that will leave an impression, but I am reminded of a speech by Susan Patron, author of "The Higher Power of Lucky" in which she spoke of euphemysms of life, and that "children deserve clear-eyed truth." There is a truth in Tricycle. Parents should read this book and decide for themselves if their child is ready for it. Writers who read Tricycle might come to the conclusion that this story's subject matter is more middle grade, and yet, it is presented in a very approachable manner for a child beginning to understand truth from lies, about personal responsibility, and about compassion. It is a book that Groundwood Books can be proud to have brought to print, and that writers of children's books can learn from.

No comments: