Review of the Day: Ms. Rubinstein's Beauty
Ms. Rubinstein's Beauty by Pep Montserrat. Sterling Publishing Co. $10.50
Bad, blog reviewers. Bad. My goal in life is review only those books that are coming out at least 2 months in advance. I rely on you to keep me informed at all times as to the cool picture books available on our shelves. Then I go to ALA, traipse by the booths, and what do I see? A magnificent jaw-droppingly gorgeous picture book that only two, count 'em, TWO bloggers have reviewed in all of 2006. So I must put all my 2007 ARCs on the shelf so as to give ample weight and attention to a first time author's breath-taking debut.
The beautiful children’s book is usually an ugly beast. Formats that adults find appealing tend to bore young tots to a stupor. If a picture book looks good, nine times out of ten you can count on its writing being sub par or (far worse) “tasteful”. Ugh. Still, I won’t deny that I’m a sucker for a beauty. Toss me a pretty book and observe as my resolve turns to a kind of viscous goo. On a first glance, I found “Ms. Rubinstein’s Beauty” a visual joy. The kind of thing you could page through time after time again and never grow tired of. Still, it wasn’t until I discovered that the text accompanying the book was not only good but downright poetic that my respect for one Mr. Pep Montserrat took a definite climb upwards in estimation. This kind of rarity makes it all the sweeter. Montserrat is a first time author/illustrator and let it not be on my head that he is not appreciated as fully as he deserves. So I'm singing to the hilltops that “Ms. Rubinstein’s Beauty” is a remarkable, touching, deeply attractive tale for young ‘uns. It is that rare meeting of what kids like with what adults like, together at long last.
Ms. Rubinstein has a bit of a problem getting people to notice her finer aspects. You won’t find anyone with prettier eyes or a sweeter nose. No one even comes close when making comparisons to her pretty hands that “move harmoniously and delicately” with her tiny little feet. For you see, Ms. Rubinstein is the bearded lady of the Balius Circus and it’s a lonely life indeed. One day, she takes herself to the park where she feeds the pigeons, gathering many a stare from the passerby in the process. No one notices anything besides her beard, except for one Mr. Pavlov who sits down next to her. He admires her hands and feet and she, in turn, likes the way he holds his walking stick and crosses his legs. It is love at first sight. And though “nobody sees the love growing between them,” the bearded lady and Mr. Pavlov, who as we are soon to learn is the trunk-nosed Elephant Man of the rival Guston Circus, have finally found one another at last.
The book is dedicated, “To all the bearded ladies, including those who are neither ladies nor bearded.” Insofar as I could tell, clever wordplay such as this is not the work of a translator. Mr. Montserrat was born in Spain, but his ear for an English turn of phrase rivals that of most native English speakers. Here you'll find phrases like, “But their eyes don’t see their eyes anymore, just their hearts. And their hearts say that they had been waiting for each other.” Right from the start it is clear that every little sentence in this book has been carefully crafted and weighed against its alternatives. Language should never be ignored in favor of pretty pictures. The best a person can hope for is a seamless convergence of the two, and “Ms. Rubinstein’s Beauty”, has that in spades.
I was also particularly keen on the gentle morality of the tale. We’ve all the heard the standard don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover folderol. It’s been done. What this book does from the very first word onward is to make it clear that Ms. Rubinstein has some stellar qualities that no one ever sees. No one, that is, save Mr. Pavlov. By the way, I’ve been working and reworking some kind of justification in my head for naming this character Pavlov and I’ve come up dry. Suggestions are more than welcome in this manner. Anyway, the point is that this book doesn’t cram a moral down your throat. What you take away from this tale is whatever it is you wish to take away. The fact that it’s funny to boot hurts not a jot.
And then there’s the art. Ah, the art. Montserrat’s style works entirely in the colors you see on the cover. Orange reds, browns, blacks, and tans appear here like old-timey posters left out in the sun and exposed to the elements. There is a mix here of a wear and tear feel alongside crisp, clear, pristine, and flawless prints. Working in this way, you’d forgive the artist for failing to put in any shadows or intricate details, but time and again Montserrat does nothing but surprise. Best of all, he isn’t afraid of a little foreshadowing. The vision of Ms. Rubinstein, when she first reveals her bearded state, pulls back to show her sitting in her circus tent. Not too far away is another tent. One the reader might miss on a first pass. And standing nearby in a jolly fashion is an elephant with a trunk that will soon prove familiar. I loved too that when Ms. Rubinstein went out to feed the pigeons in the park, she becomes the most colorful character in the otherwise brown and gloomy scene. Montserrat has an eye for fabulous fashions. Sporting a sleek little woolen coat, hat to match, and boots to die for, Ms. Rubinstein is a burnt umber vision. Little wonder that Mr. Pavlov, his scarf/nose equally eye-catching in its hues, ends up her mate.
So basically, my points are as follows:
1. Gorgeous kid-friendly art that fans of design will love just as much as their tiny offspring.
2. A story that reads off the page perfectly, considering the format.
3. A morality tale without a forced moral. A lesson without didacticism.
Great stuff. Please make sure that this isn’t a picture book you end up missing.
Previously reviewed by LibrariAnne and Can't Stop Reading.