Life, illustrated by Brendan Wenzel, written by Cynthia Rylant, published by Beach Lane Books, ISBN: 978-1481451628.
On Sunday, June 25, 2017, I had the good fortune of hearing Brendan Wenzel (creator of the fantastic 2017 Caldecott Honor winner They All Saw a Cat) talk about he came up with the art for the picture book Life written by the legendary Newbery winner Cynthia Rylant. This talk was part of a Simon & Schuster Art Lunch that included talks from other notables such as Marla Frazee, Jeannette Winter, and Peter Brown. I will not be able to do justice to Wenzel’s explanation about his process. Let me just say I sat there fascinated, and I could have listened to him (and the others) talk all day. Here is a guy who loves to experiment, radiating joy as he discusses the materials and techniques he uses. He’s not afraid to stick his hands in the dirt, play with the grass, surround himself with nature to feel inspired. He has said that feels at peace when he watches elephants and birds, and this admiration for the world’s creatures shows in his work. In short, Wenzel proves that he is the very best person to illustrate Life which celebrates the natural world and all its wonder.
Rylant’s spare, poetic and meaningful text has an inspirational bent to it, kind of a National Geographic meets Oh, the Places You Will Go! kind of vibe, confidently asking young readers to find a connection between the animals on the page and their own lives. As a lifelong animal lover myself, I find this enormously moving and effective. To say Wenzel takes the text and runs with it is an understatement. From the captivating cover to the stars on the endpapers to the glorious title page which gives us a panoramic view of simple life forms swimming in water, Life hooks you at the start. Page after page, spread after spread, Wenzel offers up memorable images. I especially love the illustrations that mirror or comment on one another (elephants waking under the sun on the verso, under the moon on the recto; a dog facing a possibly startled cat; and most hauntingly, a gorilla facing a polar bear as the words “And something to protect” appear on the page, reminding us that these beautiful animals are endangered). Meanwhile, his double page spreads are like cinema, taking us up, over, and about, under the water, into the sky, and the effect mesmerizes.
Before I end, I must mention the eyes. I adore the way Wenzel renders the eyes of his cast of animal stars. That was the very first thing that grabbed me when I saw Some Bugs! (written by Angela DiTerlizzi) a while back. I love the way his animals look at me, drawing me into their fascinating world and state of being. He has his own distinct style, and you can see him stretching this style with each new book. And Cynthia Rylant, she of Missing May, Henry & Mudge, The Relatives Came, The Great Gracie Chase (among many others) fame has added yet another gem to her long list of notable titles. A beautiful book.