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Big Picture Image
Jon J Muth
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Hesse, Karen Come On, Rain!; Scholastic, 1999. [32 p]
ISBN 0-590-33125-6   $15.95   5-8 yrs

One of the occasional saving graces of working several months ahead of ourselves, as we do here, is that we get treated to reminders of the oncoming spring and summer while we're still trudging through the snow and wondering if warmer days are ever coming. And for sheer sense memory of life in the city under the implacable summer sun, it's hard to beat Come On, Rain!

In it, three weeks of city heat are taking their toll on the plants ("Mamma lifts a listless vine and sighs") and on the people: young narrator Tessie laments that she is "sizzling like a hot potato." "Cats pant" and "heat wavers off tar patches in the broiling alleyway," but Tessie is hopefully eyeing the big gray clouds in the distance. She nips down the block to alert her friend Jackie-Joyce to the possibility of sweet, rewarding rain ("Put on your suit and come straight over"). Jackie-Joyce pulls in the other girls from the block, and the neighborhood of swimsuited kids is soon dancing through the streets under the blessed relief of a sudden downpour-and they're then joined by their "barelegged mammas," themselves frolicking through the refreshing shower, all revivified by the benediction of rain.

Hesse's measured prose is evocative without weighing itself down out of childish perception: the phraseology is freshly apt (gardening Mamma kneels "over the hot rump of a melon") and the understated details of Tessie's neighborhood reconnoiterings ("I cross the crackling-dry path past Miz Glick's window . . . glancing inside as I hurry by") give a sense of community. Particularly superlative is the book's natural inclusion of all the telling details of weather, summer, and city. The smells of hot tar and summer garbage float through the pages, every move is labored with sweat, Tessie kindly makes her mother a glass of iced tea but takes a predictable commission ("I aim a spoonful of sugar into my mouth, then a second into the drink"), and the rain's advance breeze alternates between fluttering and snatching at the curtains. The excitement of the rain itself is poetically expressed ("tromping through puddles, romping and reeling in the moisty green air") but never distanced by artistry, revealing the recognized joy of this familiar experience in a new but still authentic way.

In a stunning and worthy counterpart to Hesse's evocative text, Muth's watercolors bring the oppressive temperatures to life. Scenes of heat employ appropriately complementary ochre washes over the city and lilac and indigo shadows; specifics ranging from the haze over the city rooftops to the sheen of sweat on Mamma's brown arms speak volumes about the relentlessness of the heat wave. The art makes the most of perky Tessie's considerable charm, capturing the wiry litheness of so many young girls as she gallops across the neighborhood and cavorts in the street (a particularly endearing image is a Kilroy-esque view of her peering, pigtails at a quizzical angle, over the windowsill into Miz Glick's apartment); grownups get a fair shake too, with Mamma's harder time with the heat coming across clearly in the tilt of her body as she presses the cool iced-tea glass to her neck. Compositions are consistently imaginative without resorting to distracting flashiness: one page foregrounds the girls' conversation with a shadowed alley stairwell that jealously guards its cool spot; the spreads introducing the rain itself switch from a hands-only shot (as the girls reach up to the ripening skies), to a feet-only picture (as the drops hit the dust and begin to make patterns in the alley pavement); the view then looks down on the gaggle of girls as the rain comes in earnest and balances that perspective out a few spreads later by gazing up at the girls' rejoicing mothers leaning out over their balcony railings. Come the rain, however, all is changed-Muth's decorous draftsmanship gives way to high-action squiggles and washes of liquid color for the frolicking mother-daughter pairs, culminating in a final opalescent spread of the reawakened and rain-cleansed city in which Mamma and Tessie walk hand-in-hand along a shimmering sidewalk.

This has, perhaps deliberately, a timeless feel-there's an absence of air-conditioning and the appearance of a gramophone, but the shoes look fairly sneakerish and the sweat and heat are, of course, eternal. It will therefore immediately nudge the audience into recollections of the previous summer while reminding readers aloud of summers long gone, perhaps even providing a bridge between those recollections. (And if you're looking for a gentle way to break the news about summer to a child from a more forgiving clime, this will let them know what they're in for.) Textually and illustratively, this is unerring and vivid, needing only the smell of rain on hot concrete and waterproof pages to be complete. Come on, summer. Come on, rain. Let's dance.1.)

-- Deborah Stevenson, Associate Editor

Big Picture Image
April's Bulletin cover illustration
by Jon J Muth from
Come On, Rain!,
Copyright 1999. Used by
permission of Scholastic Press



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