Thursday, November 12, 2009

Noah's Ark!


Our book today is from 1977: Peter Spier's incredible Caldecott Medal-winning picture book Noah's Ark. Since we've already covered at great length (indeed, is there any other kind of length?) here at Stevereads all the ways in which the very best so-called children's literature stands exactly equal with all other kinds of literature (and therefore needs no specialized pleading in order to appear here at all), we can skip right ahead to the book itself, which will almost certainly go down in Stevereads history as the least text ever to get reviewed here. Noah's Ark starts off (oddly - very, very oddly) with a fun little ditty about the ark written by the intensely hateful Dutch God-botherer Jacobus Revius ("Climb on board,/Said the Lord" etc.), but after that single page, the entire book has only two lines in it, one at the very beginning and one at the very end.

The one at the beginning is "...But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord" and comes before everything else in the book - before the title page, before the copyright information- a two-page spread juxtaposing the peace and bounty of Noah's home and farm with the warfare and bloodshed into which the rest of the world has descended.

After that, it's just page after page of Spier's incredibly detailed, deceptively brilliant pictures. We see the great ark being built (with a steadily-growing crowd of curious onlookers in the background), we see Noah and his simple, toiling family, and of course we see great crowds of animals, animals of every size and shape and description. Noah invites on board pigs and mice and bees and snails and butterflies. Sloths cling to the bellies of elephants, possums hang upside-down from the fur of camels, inchworms inch along (there's even a hopeful pair of dodos).

This isn't all a peaceful folk song, either: Spier gently but firmly reminds us that in addition to all the wicked humans in the world who perished when God's flood came, there were also countless other animal species, by definition innocent, who very much wanted a place on that ark and didn't get it:


The waters quickly and entirely cover the old man-dominated features of the landscape:


and then there's only the ark, in a vast expanse of water:


Spier delights in showing us the endless variety of chores and surprises on board during those forty days and forty nights. There's swabbing and cleaning and feeding and caring to be done, and the kindly Noah of these pictures also spares time to study and even to simply contemplate. Of course my favorite single panel in the book shows a late-night scene after one such busy, stressful day, when Noah rests at the candlelit table - in the company of the two species of animal who don't care about the flood and who would be on the ark with the man even if not a single drop of rain had fallen:


Eventually, the rains stop, the sun is seen again, and Noah sends out his famous dove to find flowering land. When the dove brings back its famous olive branch, it's cause for jubilation - Noah runs through the ark's various enclosures, waving the branch at his animal charges in happy triumph before feeding it to one of the cows (who've had, after all, no fresh grazing for forty days) - but before we see all that, Spier gives us a big quiet panel between husband and wife, as it dawns on them that their ordeal at sea might be coming to a close:


Only Christians could possibly be daft enough to view the story of Noah's ark as a parable about hope (the Jews rightly saw it for the catastrophic and probably useless cautionary tale that it is)(but then, the Jews see pretty much everything as a catastrophic and probably useless cautionary tale ... it's one of their many mordant charms) - they focus on that dove returning with its olive branch, rather than on the fact that God commits planetocide in a fit of pique. Noah finds favor in the eyes of the Lord, yes, but his experience clearly gives him Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as his later behavior in Genesis clearly indicates. But that story has no place in Spier's colorful little book - except perhaps in his choice of that book's final line: "... and he planted a vineyard."

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