CM . . .
. Volume XVIIII Number 2. . . .September 14, 2012
Stephen and the Beetle is a story about the nature of perception and the ambiguity of experience. The first illustration in the book shows only the figure of a small boy and a glowing red dot. These two focal points are surrounded by a vague and indeterminate landscape. Void of text, this scene is akin to an attempt to recollect – the scene is emotionally weighted, the use of colour and the design of the page ensures this – but the image, itself, consists of only a few fully formed details.
The reader’s curiosity is immediately engaged: “He took off his shoe and raised his arm…” Like the initial spread, all illustrations for this deceptively simple story are detailed, but each spread holds only a few (if any) lines of text. This has the effect of drawing out the time spent looking at each spread, and the resulting tension is extended throughout the book. The eye focuses in on the details shown on the page. The illustrations, which are a mix of acrylic, ink, pencil, oil pastel and collage, make use of varying degrees of closeness which give the book a film-like quality. Their simplicity is deceptive as an enormous amount of emotional ambiguity is present on every page, and each re-reading reveals a new perspective.
The acute nature of Chiara Carrer’s illustrations should not, however, overshadow our appreciation of the perfectly executed simplicity of the story, itself. Jorge Luján’s text gives just enough structure to the images and very precisely articulates an intricate story.
My main objection to the book is that it has been marketed as “strongly moral”. This designation provides a much too restrictive label for what is an expansive story. As with memory, or a dream, time is suspended as Stephen lowers himself to look more closely at this red beetle. His (and our) imagination does the rest. Stephen and the Beetle has many possible readings and interpretations, and “strongly moral” limits it unnecessarily and suggests a completely didactic intention. This is a serious disservice to this complex picture book. Groundwood’s Stephen and the Beetle is a refined story – a poetic telling of a cogent moment, with a simplicity that invites the complex.
Lara LeMoal is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Children’s Literature at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC.
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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.