Drawing Outside of the Lines

The Boy and the Mountain – written by Mario Bellini, illustrated by Marianna Coppo
Tundra Books, 2022

I’ve reviewed other books both written and illustrated by Marianna Coppo.  In The Boy and the Mountain she partners as illustrator with author Mario Bellini, and the result is terrific. We’re still in the universe of the imagination, where kids successfully navigate the normal perils of childhood in inventive ways. The title would seem to imply a difference in scale; a boy is quite small in relation to a mountain. But when you’re drawing on graph paper, you have the freedom to enlarge, minimize, and equate anything. You hold the pencil and crayons, and it’s up to you.

The book is presented as a fable. “There once was a boy who always looked at a mountain.”Why is the mountain so central to his vision? It’s a constant in his life, there when he wakes up and before he falls asleep. Naturally, he wants to capture the mountain as an image, so he can both control it and keep it forever. If you have ever been involved in an art project with a child, you know that she or he can become frustrated when an idea doesn’t easily conform to its realization. Coppo sets the boy’s drawing on graph paper within a frame of writing implements and erasers. The small squares should help him to build his scene, but he still has trouble.

The graph paper element is one of the most interesting choices in the story. There is always tension between using helpful limits, like meter in poetry or figurative requirements in art, and letting your style run free. Children, and sometimes adults, even use stencils or pre-made pictures to color. Graph paper is a compromise. Yet the graph paper never seems to contain the boy’s imagination. Birds in flight, a friendly goat who is pleased with his portrait, even an accidentally smudged blue stream, all assume a life of their own. The boy begins to understand that art cannot be pinned down, even within a set of squares. He cannot draw all the leaves that he sees; “there wasn’t enough room for all of them.” Bellini and Coppo transform a universal moment of the child’s consciousness into an elegant work full of empathy. No one can duplicate all the wonders of the world in a picture, but we can create something new, which is even better. Instead of feeling resigned, the boy is finally satisfied with his efforts, and goes to sleep happy. The Boy and the Mountain does not rely on a facile Zen moment, but rather a deep sense of children’s emotions when they set their favorite mountain on a piece of paper and it looks just right. Adults may have a similar response to this eloquent book.

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