Seeing is Believing, Sometimes

The Invisible – written by Alcides Villaça, illustrated by Andrés Sandoval, translated from the Portuguese by Flávia Rocha in collaboration with Endi Bogue Hartigan
Tapioca Stories, 2020

It’s difficult to do justice to this innovative new picture book by Alcides Villaça and Andrés Sandoval.  Not only does it, like many works from Tapioca Stories, defy the age recommendations of the genre, but it is technically innovative.  Using red overlay pages that obscure parts of the images, The Invisible embodies its central question. What does it mean to see and be seen? Children and adults will both feel immersed in this exploration, where everyday reality and dreams of freedom interact.

To a child, the idea of being able to escape the constraints of world controlled by adults seems fantastic, in every sense of the word. The boy in the book doesn’t merely contemplate this superpower; he experiments with it.  Red overlays cause the red components of images to seemingly disappear, so that the act of reading itself becomes a kind superpower.  (In fact, we always like to convince children that it actually is!) The pictures remind me both of Chagall’s people not always bound to earth, and of Maira Kalman’s affectionate and funny portraits and city scenes.  But Sandoval’s style is definitely his own. 

Villaça’s words also bridge generations. They are simple and clear for children, aphoristic for adults.  “To not be seen at home…/To not be seen at school, not on the street, not anywhere” is a child’s dream come true, but also a reflection on the possibility of eluding any limitation in life. For adults, that could be work, relationships, or self-image.  Being invisible isn’t purely a negative state because it confers the ability to do magic, as when the boy imagines he can make a broom dance.  There are shades of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but also an allusion to how modest a child’s expectation of power might be.  Making a broom dance, kissing a girl on the cheek, singing in Grandma’s ear: these are not world-changing gestures, but they matter.

Each expression of the boy’s thoughts is independent, but also part of a sequence.  As he contemplates the idea of being invisible, he begins to question if its excitement might wear off. After all, “If someone is never seen, do they even know they exist?”  Villaça manages to convey a child thinking aloud, not an adult philosophizing. A child narrator is never unmediated, because an adult has written the book. In The Invisible, we know that the author is there, and is himself invisible.  But his creation is as tangible as a child wishing he could erase the teacher’s lesson, or attend a soccer game. Villaça and Sandoval celebrate both being invisible and making oneself known. After all, as the boy puts it, “I’m not supposed to be some kind of flying ghost.”  No one is, as this wonderful book communicates with such distinction.

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