Review of the Day: Learning To Fly
Before I begin I'd like to thank Anne Levy of Book Buds and Kelly at Big A little a for bring this book to my attention. I've often said that picture books from other countries simply do not get enough play in the American picture book market. Finding something like this book allows me to feel all kinds of different levels of justification.
If children's book publishers are on top of things then they know that there's been a shift in the wind. The hot new source of children's book reviews and reviewers? Weblogs, my friends. Weblogs are incredibly important in getting people aware of the hot new titles and trends in the field. And no picture book makes this any clearer than Sebastian Meschenmoser's, "Learning To Fly". If you look at the review of this book in Publisher's Weekly, you'll see that the professional reviewer hadn't a CLUE what to do with this book or (for that matter) any understanding of how popular it could become. Myself? I first heard about "Learning to Fly" because of weblogs. Several of them, entirely of their own accord, started reviewing this book and they were practically drooling all over it. Now if I had just looked at PW's review ("Don't penguins' actual talents, like deep-sea swimming, compensate for flightlessness?") I might have eschewed "Learning to Fly". Fortunately, I had a variety of sources from which to cull my information and the result was that I have had the delight of reading "Learning To Fly" for myself. And boy oh boy is it lovely. It's succinct, deeply silly (in all the right ways), and perhaps one of the best German picture books ever to grace our American shores.
One day, a man meets a penguin. The two start to talking and the penguin reveals that not too long ago he was flying. The man points out that penguins can't fly and the bird accedes the point. Just the same, it didn't know that before it began flying on its own and it wasn't until a passing flock of birds alerted it to the fact that it crashed. Determined to help the little fellow out, the man takes it home, cleans it up, and together they set out to prove whether or not penguins are or aren't able to fly. This means testing the penguin in a variety of ways. Everything from a training program and exercise to attaching goggles and fireworks to its back. Then one day, as the penguin sits in a makeshift trebuchet, a flock of other penguins fly above. "Suddenly, my penguin stretched out his wings, pushed off, and joined them in the air". The last words as the man stands looking at his departing friend? "He flew pretty well... for a penguin".
The book has several elements all working in its favor. You have the plot itself, which is charming. It could be cutesy or overly sweet, but there's something in Meschenmoser's tone that never allows the book to be anything but a straightforward record of the events that led to his penguin friend's boost in confidence. I don't know if it's the translation or if the author really is this dry a wit, but the book reads with a kind of deadpan humor you almost never get in children's books. This is complemented perfectly by the art. Instead of something cartoonish or childlike, all the artwork in this book is done in graphite. The penguin looks like a real penguin and the man looks like the author himself. There's always a splash of color here or there, but for the most part these illustrations are black and white. Meschenmoser is also obviously a big big fan of American superhero comic books and graphic novels so he sneaks in references to Superman and Batman here and there. Some people adore the shot of the penguin asleep in the sink. Personally, I much preferred the two-page spread of the man indicating to the penguin all his designs, blueprints, and plans for getting the flightless fowl airborn. You haven't lived till you've seen Leonardo Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man reimagined as a penguin (but with a curly mop of hair still on its head).
There were several things about the Publisher's Weekly review of this book that amused me deeply. At one point the reviewer notes huffily, "even true believers must admit that his premise is silly". Oh me! Oh my! A book for kids that's silly? Martha, fetch me my smelling salts... I'm feeling a touch of the vapors! Sheesh. Come on, people! Of course it's a ridiculous premise. It's also, I should note, not exactly a new one. Fans of "Bloom County" will recall Opus the penguin's many repeated attempts to fly, always ending with his rump in the air and his nose squashed flat. There are also several children's books in which dodos and ostriches try to fly. Are we going to get indignant over their presumption as well? If you're going to find fault with this book you're going to have to do a lot better than saying it's "silly". Perhaps, and bear with me here, that's exactly the point. The reviewer might have made a bigger deal about the penguin flopping around the dryer, but since she didn't I'm sure as heck not going to either.
As one children's literature blogger pointed out, "penguins are the `it' animal right now". All the more reason why a realistic looking book with a fabulous penguin hero should garner itself the attention it so desperately deserves. Now this year there are going to be a couple picture books for whom I shall "go to the mats" (as my colleagues put it) to get them recognized in some way. Consider this book one of the few. A rare title that will delight kids, entice adults, and make anyone who fancies penguins a deeply satisfied soul. One of the few must-buy children's titles of 2006.