Saturday, April 17, 2010
Our book today is David Wiesner’s 1990 kid’s book Hurricane, which uses simple language and a great range of somber colors to capture perfectly the ambiguous thrill of waiting out a big storm – the way it turns day into night, the way it feels, as one of the characters puts it in this book, like being in a “green blizzard.”
The focus here is on one family: a mother, a father, two little boys (David and George), and Hannibal, the family cat. They live in a pretty little house on a manicured suburban street, and as the book opens, a long-predicted hurricane is just starting to touch land all around them. The boys’ parents have brought out provisions – batteries, flashlights, candles – and secured the glass doors and windows of the house with duct tape (arranged in playful faces). The boys notice that Hannibal is nowhere to be found – they discover him meowing indignantly on the back steps, having been accidentally left outside during the storm preparations (inexplicably, they then take him inside).
As the storm picks up strength, the power goes out – but the atmosphere here is purely calm: the house itself is never in danger, despite the loud and ominous sounds outside. The boys go to sleep that night to the comforting light of their storm lantern, wondering how the squirrels and birds outside are managing to survive.
In the morning, the storm has passed, and the boys emerge to survey the aftermath. They’re amazed to find that an enormous tree has been downed – they’d played around it all their lives and no doubt thought it was indestructible. Wiesner’s narrative here takes a whimsical, enchanting turn, as the boys’ imagination transforms the fallen tree into the bedrock of several fantasies, ranging from the savannahs of Africa to the far reaches of outer space (there’s also a pirate ship with a particularly well-done octopus).
Soon enough, workmen come to carve up the tree and cart away the sections, which saddens the boys. They’re dejectedly remembering their “good tree” when their father calls them inside – another storm is coming, and the family once again needs to batten down the hatches and wait it out. The boys go cheerfully, wondering if this time another big tree will fall.
Of course this book was written well before the word ‘hurricane’ became synonymous with ‘Katrina’ in America, and no callousness is intended in how the boys consider the storm and its damages to be one big game. Instead, what Wiesner perfectly conveys is the wonder of a big storm hitting (especially if you live in a lightly-landscaped suburb instead of a flood plain well below sea level), the way it sparks the imagination by changing all the givens. The book’s use of colors is particularly sharp – the dark of the storm gathers gradually, page by page, and the bright of the morning after is all the more dazzling.
It will probably bring back fond memories for any adults who’ve lived through such storms (especially in the American northeast, where the book is clearly set), and kids will like that aspect of it too – although I suspect they’ll enjoy the octopus more, at least until they’re a little older. Until then, the fantasy elements will win the day (in the final panel, even Hannibal is dreaming a particularly catlike dream).