CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 6 . . . . October 7, 2011
A Friendship Begins is the first book in the series entitled "The Adventures of Cosmo the Dodo Bird." This book has an environmental theme, which is perhaps its only redeeming quality. Books about the environment are very popular at the moment, both in classrooms and as recreational reading. Unfortunately, the message here about endangered and extinct species becomes lost in poor illustrations, wholly unimaginative text, and a muddled storyline.
The illustrations in A Friendship Begins are digital. Digital illustration can be breathtaking when done properly, but that is not the case here. The illustrations in this book feature sharp, shiny-looking foregrounds and hazy, blurred backgrounds. They fail to create any illusion of depth. Even worse, the backgrounds are reused. The identical image of a blurry ship is used in two separate two-page spreads. In a picture book, this is unacceptable. It's an insult to children's intelligence to think that they won't notice or care about the duplication. The illustrations should enhance the story, but here they seem to have been treated as an after-thought.
A fantastic story or excellent writing might have redeemed Cosmo, but Racine (or his translator) falls short here as well. The story is incredibly text-heavy, with six paragraphs appearing on a single page more than once. Given the picture book format, it is sprinkled with surprisingly complex words, such as "precision" and "departure preparations." The descriptions also fall flat – while Cosmo the dodo is being chased, he is described as "terrified" three times, and his pursuer is "terrible." No other adjectives are ever used to describe Cosmo's fear. On top of all this, there is a punctuation error on the very first page of the book.
The picture book format is totally inappropriate for this story, given the complex nature of the concepts discussed. These include time travel (through a "time tunnel" encircling the earth), extinction, and the rotation of the earth. The universe, itself, is also thrown in at the end and given a perfunctory and confusing explanation: "Each star you see is like a sun. The suns shine on millions of planets." These concepts are appropriate for a child of about 10-12 years. The problem is that most 10-year-olds no longer read picture books.
Conversely, while the picture book format appeals to a young audience, the scientific concepts discussed are beyond their comprehension. In addition, there are several moments in the story that are far too intense for younger readers. For instance, the dodo is chased through the jungle by a man who wants to eat him: "Cosmo is terrified when he hears the captain's plan. ... The second the door swings open, he runs for his life!" Later on, the bird is still in danger: "Cosmo has spent a terrifying night running and hiding in the forest. Lost in heavy mist, sad and alone, he collapses."
While the science of A Friendship Begins is confusing, the plot is hopelessly convoluted. The story starts with Cosmo on his island 300 years ago, then jumps to a subplot which takes place in the unspecified future where scientists are working on a "robot-spaceship designed to save endangered species" named 3R-V. The robot wakes up to a very text-heavy page where the scientists explain: "You will be our protector of biodiversity. In other words, your purpose is to protect all the animals, plants and insects . . . especially the ones in danger of disappearing from our natural world." They then describe the robot's first mission, which is totally unrelated to the dodo. It involves saving monkeys and bringing them to the future.
Still on the same page of text, 3R-V asks how time travel works. The scientist launches into another explanation, illustrated on the facing page: "I have discovered a time tunnel that circles the planet. It has six portals or doors that open to different times on Earth. It will lead you back to the year 1900!" The explanation of time travel actually goes on for another full page, concluding: "Once you find [the time tunnel], turn and hurl yourself at super-light speed opposite to the direction of Earth's spinning."
3R-V exits the time tunnel through the wrong door and finds himself on the island of Mauritius with Cosmo. When the robot and bird meet, Cosmo asks who he is. The response is an understatement: "My story is a little complicated..."
The robot-spaceship eventually saves the dodo, and declares, "You may be the last of your species on this island, or possibly on this planet, but there must be other dodos somewhere in the universe!" Cosmo asks what the universe is, which is also what any picture book reader will be wondering, even if by some miracle they have followed the story this far.
If this book were a short graphic novel, with far less text, it might appeal to 10- to 12-year-olds. As a picture book, it is not suitable for any age group.
Katie Edwards is a Customer Service Manager with Calgary Public Library in Calgary, AB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.