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Ben’s Big Dig

by Daniel Wakeman; Dirk van Stralen, illus.

You create a world. I’ll come visit. This is the tacit but essential bargain struck between reader and writer. In picture books this agreement is a group negotiation as reader and writer are joined by illustrator and the person who reads the story aloud. For a fiction to work, and this is especially true in books for young children, there has to be a base of trust. The creators and performer say, “This is the way the world works and how it looks and sounds.” Within that big picture, however, all the parties involved can indulge in allegiances, collusions, tricks, and jokes. Everybody gets to play.

In Crocodiles Say, the voice of the text, and by extension the voice of the adult reader, is the voice by which we teach children table manners, tidiness, and tooth-flossing. “Crocodiles breakfast on crocodile food where crocodile manners are never rude. They chew and swallow, their mouths closed tight. Crocodiles say … Always be polite.” Until the ellipses, the text and pictures agree as Rae Maté’s trio of benign smiling crocs in bibs approaches a nutritious breakfast. However, after the page turn, it is another story as our heroes gobble and grab, stuff and spill.

Anarchy follows order, disobedience follows compliance, crocodile nature follows human civilization as we follow the crocs through the day of dressing, tooth-brushing, lessons, physical fitness, and bedtime. Writer and adult line up against illustrator and child in a good-natured, tongue-in-cheek riff on rules and discipline. Reminiscent in tone of the 1958 classic What Do You Say, Dear? by Sesyle Joslin and Maurice Sendak, this happy double message gives child readers plenty of freedom to create their own alliances.

Ben’s Big Dig is an innovative picture book that takes the traditional creator/reader relationship and gives it a fascinating shake-up. The story is by Daniel Wakeman but there are no words. Illustrator Dirk van Stralen moves in and out of a comic book format to pull the narrative along. Ben’s world is mysterious and deeply atmospheric, full of questions and ambiguities. It is also very childlike. Putting the illustrator on the centre stage and the “writer” backstage leaves the actual storymaking to the reader. Unlike the technologies that involve hyperactive clicking and bopping and choosing from a finite number of outcomes, this is truly interactive, using the reader’s own experience to make meaning. Here’s the story that I read, and it likely reveals as much about me as about the intentions of the creator team.

It is the 1950s (yes, my own childhood). Ben is taken, by his mother, to visit his grandmother out in the country. Ben doesn’t know much about his grandmother but the first thing he finds out is that she makes pies. Ben’s mother stays long enough to have a piece of pie and then leaves. Ben feels bereft, lonely, and abandoned. He has a hollow place inside that pie cannot fill. When he takes his suitcase up to his room he discovers that it was his father’s room, full of relics of his father’s boyhood. Ben can’t sleep. His mind is full of thoughts about his father, who was a miner and died in a mine accident. Ben creeps downstairs. He provisions himself with pie, a sandwich, a shovel, and a pit helmet. He is going to dig a hole to the other side of the world. Maybe his father will be there. Ben digs deep, all night long, digging down to the time before his father’s death, before Sputnik, back to the age of the dinosaurs. Then he digs a little farther, back to a time when all the world was water. A deluge filled with bright fish washes Ben back to the surface and the present. It is morning. Ben is carried high into the air on a geyser of water and fish. Grandma comes to the rescue and plugs the tunnel with pies. Ben sees his grandmother with new eyes. They breakfast on pie and then, on the last page, we discover that the whole story has been a memoir by the adult Ben looking back from adulthood on the other side of the world, remembering a magical and healing holiday.

Is this the real story? Where did all that emotion come from, especially in characters with minimal dot-eyed cartoon faces? For me, the emotion came from the pacing and the colours. When Ben is lonely and confused he is enclosed, hemmed in by claustrophobic borders. As soon as he decides to dig, as soon as he takes things into his own hands, the images broaden out into full-page spreads. Similarly, we trace the emotional trajectory of the book through colour. The endpapers – a gorgeous fall landscape of quilted fields in tones that evoke the work of the English Art Deco ceramics artist Clarice Cliff – lull the reader into expecting cozy nostalgia. But then there’s a glimpse of Ben in the car, a cool, almost clinical aerial view in shades of grey, brown, and beige. As we move in and out of Ben’s consciousness, van Stralen combines a blocky, black-outline cartoon style with fuzzy, shaded, digitally generated images. The deep indigo underground scenes are bordered with a reprise of the glowing landscape of life above, and then it all explodes into fluorescent fish – life, danger, and energy. For the first time, Ben opens his mouth. He has found a voice.

A five-year-old, who will be just as able to “read” this book as I am, will have a different story. That story might not have a father at all. That story might be about a sock monkey and an octopus. If the reader needs cozy, the story will be about home sweet home. If the reader has itchy feet, the story will be about the joys of the open road. We might never know what that individualized, custom-made story is.

The tension between what crocodiles say and what they do, between what pictures show and what they tell – that’s the tension that makes the negotiation between writer and reader ever-fresh in these two titles.