Okay, it’s not a comic. But it is a lavishly illustrated and pleasingly offbeat childrens’ book by the great comics and prose writer Neil Gaiman (his latest longer work is THE GRAVEYARD BOOK) and the best-selling picture book artist Adam Rex (FRANKENSTEIN MAKES A SANDWICH). Last spring at MoCCA Fest, the Children’s Literature panel spent a fair amount of time discussing a gap in available works suitable for the youngest age-bracket in comics, kids aged from 3 to 6. While there are a tremendous number of high-quality picture books in publication that do serve young readers, it’s a question to ponder what type of books, exactly, prepare children to be visually literate in the comics medium. Under close scrutiny, you might find that quite a number of picture books fit this qualification, but let’s take CHU’S DAY as an example. After all, it was written by a noted comics author, one who has changed the nature of the comics medium through introducing elements traditionally associated with genres not always at home in comics publishing, including mythology and folk-tales that don’t sport capes and cowls. Gaiman’s previously published children’s books, including BLUEBERRY GIRL with Charles Vess, and THE WOLVES IN THE WALL with Dave McKean, have been tending toward younger readers of late, for instance CRAZY HAIR, also with longtime collaborator Dave McKean. THE WOLVES IN THE WALL, at least, could be considered a little frightening for very young readers, while CRAZY HAIR is more accessible to all ages. Rest assured that CHU’S DAY is appropriate for even the most nightmare-prone child, while raising interesting issues for discussion. But let’s not forget the cuteness, either.
[Warning: Total spoilers ahead!]
The story opens with a rather startling claim, and a central image of the main character, Chu: “When Chu sneezed, bad things happened”. If this were a SANDMAN story, we might be inclined to hide behind the sofa at this point. But it’s not, and Rex’s illustrations make that clear. In fact, rather than use illustration to simply “illustrate” the text, the image, in a mode typical of comics art, questions and complicates the text. Even though the text says “bad things happen”, Chu, a baby Panda, has a sly smile on his tiny bear face. His expression is somewhat in contradiction to the text, expanding the narrative. To make another comics comparison, the large image of Chu appears “above” the text, and is large, suggesting that a reader might “read” the image before the text, giving the image primacy. This is an excellent way to introduce children to visual literacy. Rather than simply using the image to “illustrate” the text exactly, the image contributes to the narrative and may even initiate the visual narrative before the verbal narrative even begins. There are also several double-page spreads in the book, infused with intricately detail. The first one to appear accompanies the text: “In the morning, Chu went with his mother to the library”.
At this point the reader, regardless of age, knows nothing of Chu’s world aside from the fact that he is a Panda who wears clothes. They might expect a world of dressed animals, and this, indeed, is what they find to be true at the “library”. But in the library, some animals wear clothes, some don’t, and some aren’t, strictly speaking, animals at all (what is a snail called? A gastropod?). Animals that would be natural enemies in the wild sit down together to enjoy a good book while mice type away on tiny computers. It’s an image of harmony, and it says a lot about Chu’s world. It’s a safe, inviting world, and yet…Chu is capable of disrupting it. You might even say that Chu has a disastrous superpower that he has yet to learn to control, his dreaded “sneeze”. The storytelling in Rex’s double-page spreads is particularly intricate, inviting the viewer to construct, for instance, what conversations these unlikely animal pairs might be having at the diner Chu visits (What on earth is an Eagle saying to a Rhinoceros in animated fashion?). To an attentive young reader, this might suggest that the human world that they move in is equally full of as of yet untold, remarkable stories.
Rex imbues the world around Chu with subtle mysteries. Or less subtle, like a Whale for a chef at the diner (How can he possibly serve food??). In each of these environments, Chu manages to hold off a sneeze that could create a seemingly apocalyptic disruption. Until Chu and his family reach the circus, an appropriately chaotic environment for something significant to happen. Rex depicts the animal circus with particular glee and zest. Three or four animals performing is simply not enough. He adds layer upon layer of activity and a few buried details for readers to “find” on second or third (or more) readings. The fact that “nobody listened” when Chu at lasts predicted his sneeze is one of those off-beat moments in the book that breaks CHU’S DAY safely out of the mold of a beautiful but somewhat ephemeral children’s book. It places a certain weight on the role of the baby Panda Chu and indicates that things overlooked amid the distractions of life can in fact be monumental. Duly, Chu’s sneeze get its own two page exposition. Even more fittingly, the impact of Chu’s sneeze leads to five pages of exquisite visual narrative. The big top is ripped asunder, cars and trains teeter and balloons escape into the wild blue yonder, for a start (and some of these details, again, you might not catch without honing those visual literacy skills).
In keeping with the “offbeat” element which renders Chu strangely important in his otherwise carefully balanced world, the destruction caused to the circus by Chu’s sneeze is not the final word. The other smaller “worlds” of the book, the library and diner, which seemed to escape the danger of the mighty Chu, also suffer from the shock of the sneeze. It is as if Chu’s sneeze has backward-flowing impact on the narrative, causing a disorienting atemporality. Fabulously offbeat. But here we can return to comics, and the ways in which CHU’S DAY might prepare young readers to construct a comics narrative visually as they read. The two environments of the library and the diner are depicted in a split vertical page, but are meant to be read horizontally across a two-page spread. In fact, the sneeze-wave reaches the diner before (rendered “above”) it reaches the library (rendered “below”). The reader is encouraged to read across the two pages rather than viewing each page as a single unit, a feature of comics narrative in a double-page scheme.
But if this impact from the super Chu seems a little extreme, or maybe even introduces the possibility of punishment or recrimination, rest assured, there’s no hiding behind the couch in CHU’S DAY. As in the initial image of Chu, his facial expressions and reactions govern the tone of the story. He’s totally unashamed of this innate ability to turn the world upside down, literally. With a “Yup…That was a sneeze alright”, and a somewhat amazed contemplative look, Chu is off to sleep. The aftermath of his mini apocalypse certainly won’t keep him up at night, though the look of weary bewilderment on his father’s face is priceless. In fact, Chu is a “little monster”, in the old sense of the word, meaning a wonder, and inexplicable thing. The story seems to suggest that there’s simply nothing that can be done about that, and there’s no need to waste energy on trying to somehow “cure” Chu of this condition. Though this could be interpreted in a number of ways as a theme in the book, there’s a certain indestructibility about Chu that’s quite affirming. Chu is known for turning things upside down and in the same way he casts new light on what some might deem a “problem”. For young readers, this raises great questions about what they might perceive as their flaws or weaknesses. They are also likely to delight in the scenes of chaos prompted by an unlikely looking little bear. Gaiman is no stranger to the theme that little things can make a big, big, difference in the world, and even though that difference might not always be comfortable, attitude has a lot to do with outcome. Chu certainly accepts himself, and encourages the reader to do likewise.
Another subject discussed in the Children’s Literature panel at MoCCA Fest 2012 was whether books should be created specifically to be read to a younger audience or whether the children should be expected to do the reading for themselves. CHU’S DAY enables both of those possibilities to come to fruition by minimizing the amount of text and emphasizing the pictorial storytelling involved. One can easily imagine reading the book with several children of disparate ages, and the ones more capable of reading the text reading along, while the younger children listen and follow the visual narrative. The gap between ages and reading-level is narrowed by the way in which the book is devised and presented. So, in this “illustrated” book, we actually find many of the proto-elements of a different type of visual storytelling, one which adds to the narrative and may even pre-empt the guiding role of verbal cues. CHU’S DAY is a lovely book for a number of reasons, suitable to almost any age group or situation, but it also contains some of the elements comics readers are avid to find in books for the youngest children’s literature demographic.
Maybe we’ve been looking for the wrong things, and not noticing that visual literacy can be established through hybrid formats for young readers. But more than that, Gaiman and Rex present a story in masterful terms that raises questions both visually and thematically in an astonishingly compressed style. Children’s books are booming right now, and it may be difficult to tell during such a period of inundation which ones are going to become established “classics” further down the road. This little book stands head and shoulders above a sea of quality contenders for that role.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about the early works of Neil Gaiman and magic in the works of Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.