of the Center for Children's Books:
Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.
Rising Star: Chih-Yuan Chen
As three-time winner of Taiwan's Hsin Yi Picture Book Award, Chih-Yuan Chen has clearly been more prolific than his American bibliography suggests. The cross-cultural success of his first two imported picture books invites a look at his Taiwanese oeuvre with an eye for potential translations as well as the new books this young author and illustrator is surely developing.
On My Way to Buy Eggs is a simple yet eloquent story about a young girl's trip to the store. Chen's text elegantly describes the potentially endless details found in everyday life: the pair of glasses left under a tree that "wants someone to wear them," the lazy dog that just might wake up to add a (pretend) dangerous thrill to the outing, and the beautiful flowers (weeds) noticed because "the water on their petals sparkles like diamonds." What makes this work exceptional is the pairing of the evocative text with the charcoal and collage illustrations. After holding a found marble up to her eye, Shau-Yu sees that "the world becomes a blue ocean world," as an azure wash correspondingly fills the double-page spread. Similarly, a smudged charcoal cityscape captures the blurred view through the prescription glasses that Shau-Yu discovers and promptly dons. Employing a sophisticated muted palette to create elegant images, Chen's illustrations are a reflection of the potential for beauty that can be found in the mundane.
The more overtly fanciful Gugi Gugi is a quirky mixture of "The Ugly Duckling" and a reassuring adoption story. However, the ugly duckling never demonstrated the self-possession and confidence of Gugi Gugi, the crocodilian hero, and most interracial adoption stories for children do not involve murderous crocodile birth families. In the story, a busy duck fails to notice the strange large egg rolling into her nest, so she welcomes the eventual hatchling, crocodile Gugi Gugi, as one of her own. It is not until three crocodiles come slinking along in search of an easy duck dinner that Gugi Gugi is faced with his own species and must decide whether he is bound to his genetic background or the family of his nurturing. He comes to a simple conclusion—"I am not a bad crocodile. Of course, I'm not exactly a duck either"—and he cleverly saves the day for the flock. As in his previous title, Chen's illustrations are texturally compelling, adding emotional depth to the text. For example, the descriptions of the reptilian predators are alarming on their own but when paired with the dark washes of charcoal and black filling the pages every time they appear, they become truly ferocious and frightening villains. The return of ample white space and cheerfully expressive duck and "crocoduck" (Chen's new species appellation) faces evoke a sigh of relief that all is well in their world.
Chen's use of earth tones and charcoal creates nuanced, almost quiet worlds that glow with occasional splashes of bright colors just as his minimal text sparks with humor and poetic language. In both books, mood is established as much through the use of dark borders and white space as through the text. His work is distinguished by his eye for amusing details and shadowy implications that highlight the often understated humor and drama of the texts. In a humorous and cryptic "about the author" note it is indicated that Chih-Yuan Chen is tall and thin, does not like to wear suits, and loves to take walks. It is also clear from his books that he respects children's rights to belong and their ability to imaginatively construct their own world and identity.
April Spisak, Reviewer