I was lucky enough to see some illustrations for this book earlier in the year and immediately thought The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee will be the book of 2014. There have been many beautiful children’s picture books published this year, with subject matter and illustration styles so diverse, it seems ridiculous to pick a favourite. And yet, there it is, in exquisite company yes…but at the top. The Farmer and the Clown is uncluttered storytelling; no words, but huge, breathtaking heart. It is a book told entirely in pictures – a visual narrative that is simply unforgettable.
The story opens on a prairie landscape of endless, empty horizon. A white-bearded farmer in a black hat is hoeing his field, a little stooped, crows circling in the sepia sky, when a circus train rolls by in the distance. Something falls off the caboose, and as the farmer approaches the figure, he sees a tiny clown in a pointed hat. He takes the clown in hand, and off they go to his farmhouse. In full makeup, the little clown is always smiling, but once the makeup is removed, so is the smile, and the face that emerges is both young, and frightened. The clown-child is confused and sad, but the farmer does his goofy best to cheer him up. Both are alien to one another, but the strangeness soon fades as the farmer teaches the child about life on the farm. They work and play alongside each other, milking the cow, juggling eggs, and enjoying a picnic under a tree. It’s hard to say who needs who the most. The farmer is alone, and possibly lonely, and the kid is far from home and family. There is no back story – we do not know what preceeded their current states, but in the here and now, they are wondrously present for one another. The farmer’s kindness toward the little clown is returned in amiable companionship and a dose of fun that was almost certainly missing from his life. Eventually, when the circus train returns, one story ends, but another begins. At the conclusion of The Farmer and the Clown, if there is any question that their lives have been uplifted, especially the farmer’s, it is answered with the final exchange of hats. Everything is different.
Marla Frazee is a relatively recent addition to my circus tent of brilliant illustrators. I first became acquainted with her work in Boot & Shoe (Beach Lane, 2013), which was one of my favourite books from last year, as well as God Got a Dog (Cynthia Rylant, Beach Lane, 2013). In those books, produced in her signature prismacolour, pencil and gouache, Frazee brings an unusual energy to her illustrations, as if there is an unseen breeze wafting through the imagery. In The Farmer and the Clown, Frazee’s illustrations are stilled, quieter. The endearing characterizations are there, and the gentle humour, but the overall atmosphere is more reflective, allowing the graceful story to unfold in warm, prairie-wide vignettes. Colour is flat and minimal, perhaps a reflection of the farmer’s lackluster life, until a little clown in yellow ruffles and a red cap shows up. The Farmer and the Clown is a profoundly moving, deeply charming, and gorgeously illustrated book about kindness, acceptance, and how unexpected moments and unlikely friendships can transform lives.
And there it is, my favourite book of 2014.
Marla Frazee is a southern California-based author and illustrator. She was awarded a Caldecott Honor for All the World and A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever. She is the author-illustrator of Roller Coaster, Walk On!, Santa Claus the World’s Number One Toy Expert, The Boss Baby, Boot & Shoe, as well as the illustrator of many other books including Mrs Biddlebox, The Seven Silly Eaters, Stars, and God Got a Dog. Marla teaches at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA, has three grown sons, works in a small backyard cabin under an avocado tree, and has a dog named Toaster.
THE FARMER AND THE CLOWN by Marla Frazee. Published by Beach Lane Books, 2014