CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 20 . . . . May 30, 2008
Unlike many “colour” books, this bilingual picture book does more than simply provide a series of examples to illustrate and inform; it offers up small self-contained almost-stories encapsulated in a few short lines that speak to some essential quality of each colour. As such, it moves beyond the didactic feel of many concept books and into the realm of literature.
The language is by turns playful, contemplative and exuberant but always imbued with a subtle lyrical quality that holds the book together. This is no surprise, considering that the original Spanish text comes from Jorge Luján, originally from Argentina and now one of Mexico’s celebrated poets and children’s authors. Once again, this book pairs Luján’s text with the equally strong illustrations of Piet Grobler, an award-winning children’s illustrator from South Africa with more than sixty books to his name. This is the same team that worked together on Sky Blue Accident/Accidente Celeste. Grobler’s watercolour illustrations combine small whimsically detailed figures with loose wide bleeds of colour, each one managing to reflect the mood of the text perfectly. This is a lush and beautiful book; it is not only well-illustrated but also well-designed. Each colour is given a two-page spread in which the illustration spills across the fold while leaving enough white space to create an effect that is both simple and sophisticated. The names of the colours are bolded in the respective ink colours, providing a visual connection between the two languages, but there are no extraneous decorations, borders, or visual flourishes. It is the colours, themselves, that breathe and sing in the space given.
The strength of the translation, also, is not to be ignored. The two languages appear one above the other on each spread, and the translation from the Spanish original is skilled and subtle. The English text is flawless while still preserving a subtle sense of linguistic magic and surprise often found in translations of poetry. This is not to say that there are not some sections that are slightly less compelling. The passage about pink, for instance, seems less successful and falls back on colour associations that I find somewhat trite – “The color pink / bright as a little girl’s nose / makes everything smell like a rose.” I’m guessing that in this case it is partly a challenge of translation, especially given that the words for “pink” and for “rose” are the same in Spanish, but not in English. From what I can tell, the translation here is quite different from the original. Although loose translation works beautifully in other passages, leading to some fresh uses of language, it seems to fall short here. There are one or two other spreads that are fine but not breathtaking. Other than that, the book is captivating, aesthetically rich, linguistically fine-tuned, masterful.
This is a quiet book and will not necessarily keep shifting bums in place during a boisterous read-aloud or capture all readers. But there is a gentle hypnotic character to this book that is profoundly appealing. Although the simplicity of language makes this book accessible for a preschool audience, the originality and strength of the images will give it continued appeal for a primary school audience. It would be an excellent model to provide inspiration for a writing exercise in which students are invited to create their own descriptions of colors.
As a bilingual book, Colors! ¡Colores! will be a valuable resource for many classrooms and libraries. The complete the lack of condescension in the language also makes this the kind of picture book that could be used to explore the two languages with an audience of any age. As an English-speaking reviewer, I can only guess at the beauty of this text in its Spanish original. But the phrases are short enough, with strong central words and images, that I can see some of the parallels in the language, especially in the colour words that are clearly indicated by the ink colour and bolding of the text. This book makes me want to learn Spanish, which speaks to its success as a bilingual text. Look for several other titles by this author as part of Groundwood Books’ bilingual and Spanish language collections.
Anna Swanson, who is completing her Master of Library and Information Studies at the University of British Columbia, currently works as a student librarian for the Richmond Public Library.
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