Review of the Day: Waiting For Gregory
The picture to accompany this is forthcoming. My home computer cannot copy images as well as I would like. I especially want you to sit up and take notice of this puppy as well. It's one of the lovelier titles I've seen this year.
I am relieved. Utterly, completely, fully, and wholly relieved. I am relieved because when it comes to illustrator Gabi Swiatkowska I never know what to expect. This is a mixed blessing. For example, when you pick up a book illustrated by Richard Scarry or Steven Kellogg you know what you expect. Their art always stays the same and their style never wavers one way or another. But pick up a book that carries the words, “paintings by Gabi Swiatkowska” on its cover and you might as well be picking up a beautifully wrapped present. Inside you may find everything you ever hoped or dreamed of, or you might be woefully disappointed in some way. Now I adored Swiatkowska’s remarkable work on, “My Name Is Yoon” and cooed over its incredibly inventive pictures. Then came “Summertime Waltz” and while I essentially liked the book, I wasn’t carried away by what Swiatkowska had chosen to do with it. So you can understand that when I saw “Waiting For Gregory” for the first time, I was wary. For all the book’s charms, the cover illustration is not going to immediately draw you in. Open the book up though and you’ll find yourself simultaneously entranced by both author Kimberly Willis Holt’s touching story and Gabi Swiatkowska’s wonderful interpretation of the author's events. This is not a book for everyone, but for those who like a little dreamy zaniness with their children’s literature, it’s going to fill a definite need.
Iris has just learned that her Aunt Athena is expecting a baby boy and she simply cannot wait. His name will be Gregory and Iris is impatient to meet and play with her little cousin immediately. Unfortunately, no one is being completely forthright with Iris about this arrival. When she asks when he’ll come her father says “Soon, Iris, but not too soon”. Her grandfather spins her some story about a stork flying in, while her grandmother goes for the old baby-growing-underneath-a-cabbage tale. In fact, every person Iris talks to gives her an entirely different view of when Gregory will come (and in what form) until she finally asks her mom. Mom lays it on the line. Babies take nine months but no one knows what the exact day and time will be when Gregory arrives. This is an answer that Iris can handle, so she waits and waits and waits for Gregory. Finally, in the fall, her uncle calls with the good news that Gregory’s here. The family rushes over and Iris realizes pretty quickly that it’ll be some time before her cousin is old enough to play. “And soon, but not too soon, though not too long at all, Gregory will be waiting for me”. The last page shows a little boy standing there, ready to play.
Now when I wrote this summary of “Waiting For Gregory” you probably had a certain view of how the book might look. Perhaps you saw the family as living on a rural farm or in a suburban home of some sort. I’m sure author Kimberly Willis Holt had her own mental picture of the events she penned. Which makes me wonder what Holt thought when she saw Swiatkowska’s elaborate, amazing illustrations. She probably didn’t think of setting the whole thing in a kind of 1700s/white-powdered wig/circus performer/who knows what-all era. What Swiatkowska has done here is create a setting that may never have existed but that you wish desperately could have. It’s a beautiful, stunning, overwhelming series of images. For example, when Iris asks her father when Gregory is coming and he gives that soon but not too soon but not too long answer, an elaborate graph appears over Iris’s head calculating the radius of where “not too long” intersects with “soon”, which in turn leads from “not too soon”. The entire book, actually, is doing several things simultaneously. You have the characters acting out their parts as per Holt’s words. Then you have visual diagrams and graphs that play out some of the crazy things they say. So when grandpa feeds Iris the unlikely stork tale, she in turn imagines a convoluted overweight stork brought in on an elaborate pulley system. When Iris in turn thinks of how she’d love to teach Gregory how to swim, we see the outlines of a small boy swimming with a well-detailed diving helmet of sorts underneath a buoyant weather balloon. And I don’t want to forget to mention how Swiatkowska uses the book’s gutters time and time again. Sometimes her pictures will span two pages, but often there will be two entirely separate pictures on two separate pages. When that happens, images fall into the gutters on purpose and never surface again on the facing page. It’s a unique take on the picture book format and one that works especially well with this book.
I don’t want to spend all my time talking about Swiatkowska’s art when a great deal of credit should be given to author Kimberly Willis Holt as well. You may be familiar with some of Holt’s work for older children and teens. After all, she won the National Book Award for, “When Zachary Beaver Came To Town”, and is also responsible for the well-received, “My Louisiana Sky”. It’s obvious that Holt carries with her a deft hand at capturing the voices of children of every age. In this book, Iris’s anticipation is keenly felt. You even come to believe that she would actually have grown and changed enough by the end to await Gregory’s further growth with a kind of child-like acceptance. No small feat in a book of only twenty-nine pages.
Actually, the book this reminded me of the most in some ways was the delightful, “Learning to Fly” by Sebastian Meschenmoser. Both books illustrate seemingly simple stories with beautifully penciled details, graphs, and oddities. They would not be poor companions together for one-on-one readalouds. Meschenmoser hails from Germany while Swiatowkska is one of the very few Polish illustrators to gain recognition in American publishing. And once again I’d like to reiterate how relieved I was with, “Waiting For Gregory”. Kids reading the book will enjoy Holt’s story and Iris’s anticipation. They will also love the beautiful entrancing paintings Swiatkowska has painted for the story. After all, who wouldn’t want to live in a world where rocking horses are the sizes of real horses and people get to wear pointy shoes? Countless picture books come out every year pertaining to new babies and their siblings. This one definitely separates itself from the pack.