Conceptual picture books—by which I mean ones that operate more from a particular theme or idea than in a traditional linear narrative—are funny things. Some of them, even the most beautifully thought-out and magnificently illustrated ones, fly right over the heads of their intended audience. With others, kids get the idea behind the book immediately and soon share its author’s fascination with the subject matter. Of course, taste is also involved; as always, the book your kid likes may put mine to sleep. (Though I may want that book anyway. . .) But the very best concept books have universal appeal.
Palazzo Inverso, written and illustrated by D. B. Johnson (who’s perhaps best known for the Henry series of children’s books), introduces children to the mind-bending work of M. C. Escher—all those visual images that turn in on themselves, using tricks of perspective to create scenes that would be impossible in three dimensions. A quote from Escher himself on the back jacket provides a sense of what’s inside: “It is impossible for the inhabitants of different worlds to walk or sit or stand on the same floor. . . Yet they may well share the use of the same staircase.”
The book tells the tale of Mauk, an architect’s apprentice trying to figure out what’s gone wrong with the palace his master is building—why the builders are be spilling bricks up to the ceiling, for instance. Mirroring the boy’s own perceptions, the text starts out flowing in normal, linear left-to-right fashion, but there’s also text upside-down at the top of each page. At the “end” of the book, right as Mauk figures out what’s caused the strange occurrences, the text continues around to that upside-down text; you flip the book over and continue reading back the other way. In a clever narrative use of the classic Escher effect, the same images you’ve seen going in one direction serve slightly different purposes on the way back. (It’s at this point that I noticed that the text of each spread of the book functions as its own complete loop, as well.)
Johnson’s illustrations do great justice to their inspiration, combining the familiar color palette of much of Escher’s own work with a softness that adds to both the mystery and the beauty of the pages. But of course, it’s the dual nature of the images themselves that will most fascinate many kids—it was a bit of a thrill to watch my five-year-old see these types of illustrations for the first time and try to get his mind around what was happening in them.
The looping effect of the text does make this book a bit risky as a bedtime read—you could get stuck in this Palazzo a lot longer than its 32 pages of minimal text would suggest, especially if your child is mesmerized by her first exposure to Escher. But that just shows it’s a picture book a kid can get lost in, and I think many will spend a lot of time examining, and pondering, Johnson’s work.
From You Know, For Kids