By Quentin Blake
The work of Quentin Blake has appeared before on TurtleAndRobot.com, here and here. He is perhaps my most favorite illustrator. Fortunately for me, he is extremely prolific. Unfortunately for me, I may never be able to collect all his books. His skilled storytelling, expert lines, quirky style and exceptional art never cease to amaze me. Clown, a wordless picture book, is among my favorite picture books ever. Blake’s generous palette is radiant and expansive. The story is sweet and sad; the art, as always, is active and expressive.
Though this is his only wordless picture book to date, Blake’s art often needs no words; with a quick line and a splash of color he is able to convey more energy and emotion in one panel that some artists can achieve in an entire book. The small and elite group that I consider to be in the same realm of Blake’s artistic genius includes only two other illustrators: Shel Silverstein and Tomi Ungerer. Each of these men is able to breathe irrepressible life into a single line. Though the style may appear to be easy and uncomplicated it is in fact richly complex and expertly crafted.
Wordless picture books can be off-putting to some adults—they panic, “What do I read if there are no words?” But a wordless book can be liberating. Readers have an opportunity to change the story every time they tell it. The story is right there in the pictures and how it’s told is up to the reader. Wordless books offer children and adults an opportunity to observe the action, follow a sequence of events and tell their own version of what they perceive. Wordless stories can aid in developing visual literacy, narrative skills and creativity. Freed from the confines of text, novel nuances emerge every time the book is opened.
Clown opens with a grandmotherly figure descending the steps of a brownstone, her hands full of old, worn dolls. Into the garbage they go; the lifeless toys oblivious to their new unfortunate situation. In the next spread, a surprised Clown—who is amongst the recently discarded—looks around in dismay and quickly wriggles free. He drops to the ground and brushes himself off. Noticing his ragged shoes, the quick-thinking Clown roots through the neighboring pile of garbage and finds himself a sporty pair of high-top sneakers. The rejuvenated Clown is off and running!
He soon spots a young child and rushes to tell her his story, but before he can finish she is scooped up by her parents and taken away. The baffled Clown is wondering what to do next when he’s picked up by an adult and promptly added to a group of costumed children being photographed. Clown, growing distressed, tells his story to a young girl dressed in a fairy costume. She happily picks Clown up and takes him with her. When she arrives at home her mother promptly throws the used toy out the window.
Clown lands safely on the street and is immediately chased down by an angry dog. The situation seems dire but the ever-energetic Clown jumps onto a crate and puts on a show of acrobatics for the now bewildered dog. Just then, the dog’s owner comes along and Clown quickly finds himself being tossed aside again.
He flies through the air and lands inside a home where a woeful caretaker is desperately trying to comfort a crying child. Clown’s unexpected appearance shocks them both. Without delay, the charming Clown begins entertaining his new audience. Swiftly relieved of their tears, the guardian and her charge are won over. Once again he explains his predicament. Clown and the caretaker quickly come to an agreement: he will help her clean up the house before the child’s mother arrives and she will help him rescue his friends from the garbage.
The new friends work wonderfully together and the apartment is soon in perfect order. Clown, caretaker and baby head out to liberate the toys from their difficult situation. After retrieving his rejected comrades from the garbage, Clown finds a lovely blue ribbon for the babysitter’s hair and a bouquet of flowers to decorate the apartment; the jovial trio returns home.
When the tired-looking mother arrives, she’s surprised and delighted to find a happy child, a clean home and a menagerie of new friends. Clown rests happily, his ordeals behind him, with his old friends and his new family.
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