Center for Children's Books
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By Aaron Reynolds; illustrated by Paul Hoppe
“Makin’ junk out of junk” may not be Mama’s idea of a proper job, but
it’s endlessly fascinating to young Devon, who spends his free time
hanging out in the workshop of sculptor Mitch, whom he dubs Metal Man.
Mitch’s atelier is just the space to attract a boy with sweltering
summer time on his hands--a noisy garage filled with drums of scrap
metal, power tools, and a welding torch that kicks up a shower of
sparks that can sting a t-shirted boy like a thousand killer bees.
Devon certainly doesn’t come for the company though; up ’til now Mitch
has never had much to say beyond warning Devon to keep out of the way.
Today, though, the terse artist asks Devon what the boy sees in his
latest work and, evidently satisfied with the answer, invites him to
suggest his own theme for a piece. Devon’s reticent to share his idea
for a house within a star, since adults haven’t established much of a
track record for taking his views seriously, but Mitch gruffly coaxes
the vision into daylight and, under Devon’s direction, makes it
tangible. When Mama sees the gleaming metal creation that bears Devon’s
name on the back, she klunks it down on the air conditioner, that place
where everybody hangs out, and finally gives Devon and Mitch their
Reynolds works the picture-book format with the same mastery
Mitch applies to rusty iron. A few offhand remarks, a couple of brief
conversations, and a smattering of the young narrator’s own
observations are transformed into a remarkably clear portrait of
Devon as a kid with a lot more going on inside than the adults in his
life have noticed or acknowledged. Mama’s views on all this
time-wasting are summed up in her “junk out of junk” remark about
Mitch’s enterprise, and school hasn’t been supportive either: “When I
hang out with the metal man, I get it right. I see what I see. Not like
school.” And Devon’s mad and growly reluctance to put his star-house
vision into words painfully and brilliantly realized in a single page
of staccato dialogue is the clear culmination of having his notions
brushed aside once too often: “I got a spark in my head, but I ain’t
sayin it with my mouth. I don’t know, I say. It’s a lie, but I tell it
anyway.” “Yeah, you do,” he says. “Don’t be scared, boy. Bring it on
out to play.” Given a shot of encouragement by his idol, Devon’s an
artistic force to be reckoned with. Not only can he articulate the
shape his star house should take, but he also demonstrates that he’s
been watching Mitch’s craft with sensitive understanding all along, and
he can wait patiently and trustingly while the cutting, welding,
grinding, and polishing processes turn the most unpromising materials
into a showpiece.
Hoppe’s mixed-media illustrations supply the heat and
burly muscle the text demands. A controlled hodgepodge of broad
brushstrokes and squiggly pencil lines, detailed representations of
Mitch at work, and subtle backdrops of simplified forms and diminished
colors all invite close, lingering inspection. Just as Reynolds deploys
words economically, Hoppe limits his palette, mainly employing two
dominant colors. Browns and related tans handle mundane affairs, the
surfaces we all see, from the creamy chocolate skin tones of the
African-American cast, to the drab workshop and the oxidized metals
Mitch will call to life. Blues suggest possibility--the heavy
machinery that transforms the metal, the hot blue sparks of the torch,
the blue background behind Devon as he conjures his star house, the
blue shadows cast by Devon when Mitch first invites him into the
creative process, even the blue blouse Mama wears when she recognizes
her son’s interior energy. If Devon is consistently shown as an
ordinary kid, speaking volumes through supple body language and facial
expressions, Mitch is variously portrayed as a mystery man, a sometimes
giant, larger-than-life idol, or an accessible friend, just as Devon
views him. He looms over Devon in their initial conversation, abates in
size when they work side by side at the table saw, and fills a full two
pages as a grinder-wielding titan, bringing out the shine in the metal
(and, metaphorically, the boy) that was under there all the time.
Will Devon ever create these wonders entirely on his own? Who knows?
Reynolds’ audience will certainly agree he’s too young to handle the
tools and torch just yet. But whatever medium he ultimately adopts as
his own or even if he never undertakes an art project at all Devon
knows that he can find meaning in visual forms others may miss, that
his ideas have value, and that some adults can listen and respect. It’s
a message that any young artist in the making will welcome, but one
that even listeners who will never progress beyond stick men can
Elizabeth Bush, Reviewer
Cover image by Paul Hoppe from Metal Man ©2008.
Used by permission of Charlesbridge.
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This page was last updated on July 1, 2008.