Thinking a lot about space these days. Not physical space~celestial space. The stuff above my head. My inspiration is Chris Hadfield, the Canadian commander of the International Space Station recently returned to Earth after six months in space. More about that in my next post. For now, I would like to direct your attention to the creatures who populate the space up there, way up there. I speak of aliens, of course, or one alien in particular, who, like Cmd Hadfield, has a taste for adventure.
In Frank Viva’s new book, A Long Way Away, we find an affable, jellyfish-like alien setting off on a journey, but it is up to the reader to decide if he is headed toward earth, or departing from it. Read one way, the alien is descending from space to earth in a tube-like yellow tunnel. Read the other, he is ascending through the same tunnel. This two-in-one story was created, like Viva’s previous book Along a Long Road, as a single, continuous 26 ft piece of art. In addition to myself and other picture book aficionados, it’s easy to imagine the young audience for A Long Way Away being completely enthralled by the format and possibility of this clever and beautiful book. With simple blocks of text and fantastically quirky, almost retro imagery, the narrative is wide open to interpretation, and yet what links this book to Along a Long Road is the pleasure of the journey.
The creatures inhabiting the alien’s home seem plucked from the ocean floor, with waving tendrils and funny little antenna. The aquatic nature of these beings may explain why the alien’s flight path ends in a lagoon, or begins, depending on your perspective. Along the way, whichever way, the alien encounters many curious life forms and an array of man-made objects, including a plane (Air Viva, no less) intercepting his path, a cityscape rendered in stylized geometric patterns, and if you look closely, the highly bendable cyclist from Along a Long Road. The colours and shapes are so positively charged, they glow against the black background of space and ocean. Design and illustration play equal roles on the pages of A Long Way Away, which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Viva’s distinguished career as a graphic artist.
Viva uses Adobe Illustrator as both his canvas and his paintbrush, with a bit of manual typography. As mentioned a few times in this blog, I prefer art that is hand-drawn, for no reason other than it feels closer to the imperfect human who created it. Increasingly, however, artists are using ‘old school’ methods augmented by technology. Jon Klassen is a prime example of an artist who moves seamlessly from mark-making with his own flesh & blood digits to digitalized manipulation on computer without losing any of the tactile connection to the page. Frank Viva produces most of his illustrations on computer, but like Klassen, the art is no less beautiful or relatable, even if the alien subject is more squid than human.
A Long Way Away is an amusing space adventure, but it is also the touching story of a little alien finding his way home. However you read it, Frank Viva’s second picture book for children is exceptional. Stunning, inventive, and the best thing to come from a long way away in a long, long time, other than a certain Canadian spaceman, that is.
Frank Viva runs a design agency in Toronto (Viva & Co.) He is a frequent cover artist for The New Yorker, sits on two college advisory boards, and is past president of the Advertising & Design Club of Canada. His first picture book, Along a Long Road, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award and named one of The New York Times’ 10 Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 2011. (Incidentally, it was also on my best of the best for 2011.)
A Long Way Away by Frank Viva, published by HarperCollins, 2013
Along a Long Road by Frank Viva, published by HarperCollins, 2011