Lift – by Minh Lê, illustrated by Dan Santat, Disney Hyperion, 2020
If you live in an apartment building with your family, imagine your frustration if your child deliberately pushed all the buttons in the elevator. Would you feel more understanding towards her if you knew that she had been driven to this annoying act of protest by sibling rivalry? This situation is the premise of Minh Lê’s and Dan Santat’s fantastic picture book, Lift.
Both meticulously realistic in its portrayal of ordinary childhood resentments, and gloriously imaginative as an ode to worlds of imaginary escape, Lift features a rebellious but kind kid with loving parents who somehow seem unfair. Children will identify with Iris, the girl who just can’t let her brother take over that important job of elevator transportation.
Comic book format allows the plot to unfold with a minimum of exposition. Characters’ faces have minimal details but expressive power, as in the scene showing the aftermath of Iris’s button pulling stunt, after her toddler brother is allowed to fulfill his dream of pushing the button in the elevator. Her mother is furious, an adult woman with her hand splayed over her own face in frustration. Iris’s father looks almost resigned, as he holds his son, along with the toy tiger that never seems to leave the little boy’s arms. Iris’s face is a terrifying scowl; her pigtails stick out from her head like horns. There is no dialogue on this page, only the “tap” of buttons and the “ding” of the elevator’s bell.
One feature of the book with appeal for both young children and their adult readers is the use of repeated motifs and images. When Iris learns that a discarded elevator button panel opens the door to a universe of natural wonders, that stuffed tiger shows up as a real beast, and the friendly babysitter’s outer space board game becomes a real planetary voyage. Nighttime scenes are bathed in blue and black, while everyday activities have a soft, limited color palette, stressing the contrast between the two worlds. When Iris discovers empathy, not through her parents’ anger but by recognizing her little brother’s vulnerability, readers feel relief, but Iris has not been socialized into accepting the boring requirements of adult expectations. As she stands with the back to the reader, holding her brother’s hand, both children face the door to open-ended adventure. The book evokes every disjuncture between reality and possibility in children’s literature: Narnia, Wonderland, Oz, a magical tollbooth, Clara’s kingdom of sweets. In Lê and Santat’s version of imaginary powers, childhood is safe, parents are protective, and younger brothers don’t destroy beloved toys. Still, children need to step outside once in a while.