I’ve been wanting to do a slightly more in-depth review of a picture book for a while, and when I came across the very gorgeous Martha and the Bunny Brothers by Clara Vulliamy it felt like the perfect opportunity.
What I want this post to do is give you a bit of background on how I read picture books. I don’t have children. I don’t read them with children. I read them in a sort of different manner that I think is worthy of examination.
So where do I start? I take a look at the plot, briefly, but usually I start by looking at the front cover (1). The front cover of a picture book is vital. The intended audience is quite often pre/emerging literates and so the words may mean very little. It’s about the feel. And this feels gorgeous. It makes me smile. Hugely. I love how the little I <3 School motif on the bottom, right in the centre has a distinct exercise book / name label quality to it , what with the little dashes underneath and the carefully formed lettering on top of it. There’s a lot to be said as well about the exuberance of the bunnies. We have Martha and her brothers, all of them smiling and arms outspread. This is such an open moment, these rabbits aren’t hiding anything from you. They want you here. This book wants you here. It would be rude not to read it.
Once inside, we immediately see this (2). There’s a lot here that’s making me happy. The bold felt-tip pen colours continue (which I like, feeling instantly drawn back to school), and we start to see shapes being introduced. One recurrent motif turns out to be these scalloped edged circles. I really enjoy the dialogue between the pink circles on the left hand side – one, two, three “That’s me!”. There’s an exuberance in that movement, stretching all the way across the double page spread, pulling the reader visually to a bright and exciting discovery at the end of it. I also love the way that Martha errupts from the inside of her own circle. That springy sense of ‘I’m here!’, the way she doesn’t quite fit in her circle, she’s too big for it. I love that – the construction of an image that is, in its own way, as complicated as the highest of textual metaphor. To discover it so early in a book is reassuring to say the least.
The next double page spread (3) is the moment that I know this book has got me. And it’s a very specific moment. It’s in this little section (4), right by the spine, where Martha says that she likes doodling, and the way the typography slides, very gloriously right through to the ‘background’ of the page, and the doodles spin off into the page. I love books that acknowledge their form, that connect the front image with the back, and acknowledge the glorious potential of these layers of image.
I mean, it’s glorious. This book is so lovely and put together with such a genuine love for the subject and the medium, that it’s a rampant pleasure to read. Moments such as (5) where the story slides into the picture frames set against a rabbit Toile de Jouy is lovely. It’s a play on the overly formal living room setting, cheekily undermined by Paws racing across the bottom with a shoe in his mouth.
And so this is the moment where I make my decision, and it’s balanced on all of this. It’s balanced on how a book makes me feel, on whether I go through it with a smile, of whether I’m intrigued and excited, of whether I’m surprised about what comes next. It’s also thinking about whether I’d like other people to see it, to enjoy it, to feel like what I did. And it’s about thinking about how I’d feel if I saw it in the hands of my niece or nephews, or my friend’s baby. It’s about thinking what I want this books journey to be in the world.
But, sometimes, all of that doesn’t matter. Not at all. Because sometimes a book just makes you feel intensely happy that it exists and that’s what has happened here. I’m sold. I was sold ever since I saw those pink circles, that doodling beat, and the way the book is so furiously happy in what it is.
Martha, I really really like you. You made me proper happy.