This morning's trip to the public library yielded the usual bounty, including this title by Czech-born MacArthur Fellow Peter Sis. Sis's genius is readily apparent in his 30-some publications; he has been a Caldecott Honoree several times (for Tibet Through the Red Box, Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei, and The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain) as well as, most recently, a 2011 Pura Belpre for The Dreamer, a collaboration with Pam Munoz Ryan.
Sis's signature style involves richly detailed, rather dense pen and ink drawings touched by watercolor or colored pencil. He juxtaposes black and white with color to powerful ends, sometimes a few spots of color on a black and white page; occasionally a richly colored page providing startling contrast to its more muted neighbors. Whether writing about a little girl in his adopted city of New York or his own childhood in Prague, Sis's work is very often "about" the transformative power of imagination.
Madlenka is, quite simply, the story of a little girl who shares the good news of her first loose tooth with the neighbors on her vibrant, globally diverse NYC block. They all greet her in their native language and, through clever use of cut outs, invite her into their inner worlds of memory and invention. Eventually she returns to her parents, declaring "I went around the world."
Is this a "perfect book"? The academic in me can't help but notice the stereotypical---at times a little exoticized---images and artifacts associated with each culture as well as the questionable elision of regional cultures (Latin American and Asian). Yet this is in every other way a delightful book, full of beautiful, multi-layered illustrations that reward re-reading. It's a love letter to New York City, a tribute to Sis's own American-born daughter Madeleine, and an immigrant storyteller's reflection on his new home. Most importantly, it is an exuberant celebration of growth, community, and imagination.