Review of the Day: Keeper of Souls
Death is really hot these days. Between The Book Thief and Billy and Mandy kids are just gung-ho about the old Reapermeister. What better time then to do a little death-related book reviewing? And a picture book at that!
For some reason stories about average joes outsmarting death incarnate make for wonderful picture books. There was the Pura Belpre winner of 2003, "Just a Minute" by Yuyi Morales and the classic folktale of, "The Man Who Caught Death In a Bag". Outwitting the man with the scythe is a universal activity. All the more reason then that a resident of Tacoma, Washington and a Columbian resident of Canada should join together to bring us the newest addition to this already well-populated genre. Now as books go, "Keeper of Soles" had its points. Its author is excellent and its one-namer of an illustrator is unspeakably talented. Unfortunately their two styles mix about as well as oil and water. This is a fine book, but an unfortunate pairing of two perfectly good artists who just don't work together very well.
Colin's a heckuva cobbler. He makes good quality shoes for all kinds of people regardless of who they are or what their income might be. As shoemakers go, Colin is a stand-up fella. Then one day there's a knock on the door and who should it be standing there but the grim reaper himself. Death starts to inform Colin that his time has come when the cobbler happens to notice that old grimmy hasn't any footwear. Quick as a wink he takes an order for a pair of sandals, "They would go with the robe", and tells Death to come back in a month. In a month he does, but by then Colin is convinced that good-quality boots are what Death really needs. This goes one for years and years until one day the man in black tells Colin that time is finally up. It's time to hand over his soul. Colin counters with the point that he's given Death tons of soles over the years. This amuses Death who finally concedes the point and tells Colin that he'll come for him when the soles of the shoes have worn out. And since these are good quality shoes we're talking about, "It would be many years before Death would stand on his doorstep again".
I know my Ingmar Bergman, so the "Seventh Seal" reference on the cover of this book did not go unappreciated. In fact many of the illustrator Yayo's little touches were delightful. Before I read the text of this book I loved flipping through the pictures. On one page Yayo has made Death's tonsils look like little boots. On another, Colins' bed is in the shape of a comfy little clog. I have no doubt that there will be countless parents, grandparents, godparents, and other potential purchasers around America who will pick this book up at their local bookstore, flip through it with a measured hand, and buy it on the strength of the pictures alone. This, unfortunately, would be a mistake. I want to make it perfectly clear that I think that Yayo is talented beyond all measure. Are we clear on this? Good, because there's a catch. Yayo is talented, but Yayo also didn't seem to be reading this book very closely. Teresa Bateman has written a measured fable with a healthy dose of foreshadowing, potential for danger, and steady folklore. Yayo, in contrast, has illustrated this book like it was a fabulous Death-centric comedy. The two, sadly, are at odds with one another. For example, near the end of the book Death insists that now is the time for Colin to finally die. Colin, cleverly replies, "And what do you think I've been giving you all these many years?...I've given you sole after sole". A sly joke in the face of impending death. On the opposite page, however, we see death standing over Colin while wearing rainbow-colored hightop platform shoes with pink sides and lime-green shoelaces. The picture is great but it doesn't work with the text. Often Yayo prefers to lighten his scenes with what can only be called oddly-timed levity. If the words matched Yayo's high-spirited let's-just-throw-every-silly-shoe/death-reference-into-a-bowl-and-mix-it-all-together style that might be one thing. But Bateman is calling on a long tradition of tales in which people face down death with only the power of their brains. To counter that with fun but poorly chosen images just cheapens the whole endeavor.
When I showed this book to a colleague they took one look at the image of Death on the back cover walking his shoes like they were puppies and said, "The Fifth Avenue moms are gonna love this". That's exactly right. People really into shoes and high-end primary-colored fashions will gravitate towards "Keeper of Soles" and find a really good story inside. They'll also find mighty inventive illustrations. Personally I think the editor did a poor job when they paired Yayo with Bateman, but that's just my opinion. On the whole it's a nice book but because of the disconnect between word and image you'll just have to believe me when I say that the similar, "Just a Minute" by Yuyi Morales is the superior version. A good try from two very talented artists.