Review Essay: The Welcoming Universe of Alice Melvin
The experience of reading or listening to a picture book can be both expansive and comforting for a child. Some of the best books for children enable this dual sense of wonder and familiarity by providing both experiences within the same text and illustrations.
Scottish author and illustrator Alice Melvin, in The High Street (Tate, 2011) and Grandma’s House, (Tate, 2015), draws readers and listeners into fully created universes of carefully constructed buildings and interiors populated by reassuring people. The people are parents, children, shopkeepers, police officers, dog walkers, and grandparents. The interiors are filled with an almost endless collection of the familiar objects in a child’s, or an adult’s, daily life.
In The High Street, the protagonist, Sally, goes shopping in a series of stores peopled by owners and customers of different races, backgrounds, and genders.
She has a purpose and so does the reader, to find the items on an eclectic shopping list provided before the story begins. The author describes her quest in rhymed sentences, but some of the language is not at the level of Dr. Seuss’s fantastic rhymes for the youngest readers: “Mr. Kumar’s china shop is here at number three,/with finely painted figurines and cups for serving tea.” Ms. Yoshiko’s antique shop has objects which are also fragile, and even mysterious: “Faded armchairs, carriage clocks, a case of diamond rings…/Sally tiptoes slowly in, past strange and ancient things.”
There can be a fine line in children’s illustrated books between immersive and gimmicky. Books with flaps, moving parts, or hologram-style illustrations predate e-books in their attention-grabbing nature. In Melvin’s books pages open to double spreads, and, in Grandma’s House, pages feature cut out “windows” that allow the reader to see the previous and the next room in Grandma’s house. These are not books for toddlers. The child who is old enough, however, can literally open the door to a new environment and encounter new things. Mrs. Millard’s music shop showcases a piano, almost certainly a part of a child’s visual vocabulary, but also three different recorders, a colorful collection of reeds, and a book entitled Songs from the Forties. (That last item may lead to interesting questions.) Similarly, Mr. Hughes’ hardware store features several different designs of saucepans, as well as T-squares, planes, and screwdrivers. The presentation of these items is casual, without a didactic purpose, as in the many informational books that deliberately label items, sometimes with limited context.
Melvin’s Grandma’s House is part of a genre in which grandparents are a nurturing and constant presence. One of the best aspects of this work is its understatement and lack of sentimentality. As the little girl simply states, “Often after school I go to Grandma’s house/where everything is different/but always stays the same.” She pours her glass of milk from “the little china cow,” and spins the globe in the living room “for places that I know.” Even if a child has never encountered a spinning globe, let alone a china cow, the girl’s quiet and purposeful trip through her grandmother’s home will resonate. At the end of the search she finds her grandmother and they exchange a wordless hug. In her afterward to Grandma’s House, Melvin relates her memories of her own grandmother, admitting that the book contains both true and invented elements. Her grandmother, she informs us, did not actually have a dog, a cat, or a parrot. At the end of the story the girl finds the grandmother she has been looking for and they embrace, a “real” older lady with gray hair, glasses, and pearls, observed by the “fictional” Dalmatian and striped silver tabby. Although Melvin’s explanation is directed at adult readers, it would be easy and worthwhile to point out to an older child that artists can create works by mixing real memories with imagined ones.
As a child, I remember reading Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham’s Harry the Dirty Dog, and being somehow convinced of the story’s accuracy by specific illustrations in the book. The little boy, puzzled by the strange dog’s identity, is holding a tiny toy car suspended by a string. In the scene where the children bathe the previously reluctant Harry, a small rubber duck in a wire dish made this household real for me. Alice Melvin’s specific yet approachable images invite children to form new associations within established experiences; they do this with subtlety, artistic excellence and respect for young readers.