Wednesday, July 01, 2009

All Ages

Owly, Written and Illustrated by Andy Runton, Top Shelf Productions, 2003-2009

This stuff is just too ridiculously cute and sweet. I can hardly take it. It's freaking adorable, and you'd have to be a stone-hearted cynical bastard to think otherwise.

Okay, yes, Andy Runton's Owly series of books are almost diabetic coma-inducing and there are tears and tears and tears throughout the series after every setback. But the man is working almost entirely without words and those great big dollops of eyedew just about to crest the bottom of the title character's moon eyes are unsubtle enough for younger readers.

I discovered Owly prowling through the graphic novel section at the library. As soon as I saw the first book, I knew that my daughter, The Littlest Critic, would adore these books. The oh so cute cover of volume four, A Time to Be Brave, not only caught my eye, it also acts as a pretty good indicator of what you can expect from the series. Note the tears in the eyes of that worm (who Owly is not going to eat). Note the sad little animal in the left hand middle, rather frightened-looking itself despite casting a fearsome shadow.

Runton seems to work within the realm of childhood fears, especially rejection by others, and he works them pretty effectively. There are no major frights in these books, just the run of the mill emotional trauma many a child will recognize all too well. That the books are almost devoid of words is actually helpful for addressing these fears because children don't generally have a way to speak to their fears and feelings. Runton's books not only show, not tell, the story, they also effectively demonstrate solutions to these troubles without the heavy, preachy hand of narration.

The first book, a two story volume that includes "The Way Home," wherein we are introduced to Owly's new friend and roommate, Wormy, sets up the typical Runton story arc. Owly, who we are informed somewhere in the promotional materials is a bird of play, not of prey, is an all around good guy, if a little lonely. He feeds local birds with seeds despite their terror at his approach, he frees bugs from jars abandoned by thoughtless children, and he rescues a worm from a puddle during a storm.

The cold, shivering worm is taken back to Owly's home where he is nursed back to health, and then the two set out on a quest to find Wormy's parents who he was washed away from during the storm. Runton's drawings are exquisitely simple without feeling as though he were sacrificing a great deal of detail. He uses nice bold, thick black lines to great effect, giving us almost woodcut quality drawings. The frequent use of closeups makes the books particularly engaging for the littlest of readers (as does the general lack of language). You'd be hard pressed to find a more adorable image in the first story than Wormy with a bindle thrown over his fat part (known as the clitellum among the scientific in the know types).

Of course, Wormy's parents are terrified of Owly, as most worms would be, though Wormy wins them over. After a brief reunion, Wormy then returns to live with Owly in his treehouse.

Thus a pattern. "The Bittersweet Summer," the second story in the first volume finds Wormy and Owly trying to make friends with two hummingbirds. They are at first mystified by the creatures, then try to feed them seed and are saddened by the birds' refusal. A trip to the bird encyclopedia sets our heroic pair straight, which is promptly followed by a trip to the nursery run by a raccoon to purchase nectar flowers. Eventually though, heartbreak: the two hummingbirds can not stay in the treehouse and must head south for the winter. Tears yet again, but happiness at the later discovery that the pair of hummingbirds will return in the spring.

This volume is followed by Just a Little Blue in which Owly and Wormy sacrifice Owly's wooden wheelbarrow for the lumber to make a birdhouse for a bluebird, only to have the bird reject it. Anyone who's been to a children's birthday party and watched the brave faces when a present doesn't quite take will recognize this particular sorrow. How will Owly and Wormy resolve this? with kindness and persistence and patience, of course.

Volume three Flying Lessons has Owly and Wormy meeting a flying squirrel, who, true to form, is terrified of Owly. Wormy is determined to make the squirrel see his friend and roommate in a good light and ventures out at night, alone, to make peace. He stays out all night atop a tree and the next morning when Owly in a panic comes to find him, the squirrel flees yet again. This leaves Wormy stranded up a tall tree. The subsequent flashback, when we learn that Owly can't actually fly, is a touching little bit of school-time cruelty that hardly anyone will fail to recall.

The fourth volume A Time to Be Brave, has Wormy being the frightened one for a change as a new creature, an opossum, comes into the forest. Once again, yet without seeming at all repetitive or dull, Runton tells a sweet little story that likely addresses children's all-too real fears and worries about others and about new friendships.

The best part of the books, other than their absolutely touching sweetness, is the amount of story Runton can convey with merely a few symbols. A few familiar things like exclamation and question marks, the void sign of circle with line through it, arrows and the like, are as much as a child needs to grasp to fully follow along. There are occasional lapses in this, as when Owly or some other character consults a reference work and gets information on various animals or when we see a bag labeled "Seeds" toted about. But other than that, the simple stories told with grace and clarity truly are, as the books' covers suggest, all ages.

And, for the record, TLC loved them.


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