Are We There Yet? by Dan Santat
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
There’s something rather extraordinary about Santat’s latest picture book which investigates the imaginative potential of the road trip. Road trips are boring, really, unless you’re doing something. And if you are, then you’re not in the car. You’re eating something or photographing or racing your siblings to be the first to the last toilet this side of midnight. But sooner or later, that ends, and you’re back in the car, and there’s another three hundred hours to be worked through before you get to where you’re going.
Time. It’s a hard concept for adults to grasp, let alone very young children, and Santat wisely stays away from rigid facts and figures. Instead Are we there yet? embraces the dream-edge of time, space and indeed, of the very parameters of book itself.
It’s Grandma’s birthday, and, as the road trip continues and boredom sets in, the book flips – quite literally – and another narrative spills out on the upside-down pages. It’s a narrative of adventure; still, rich scenes torn from time and set against the plaintive backdrop of the family in the car and “I’m bored” emanating from the back seat.Minutes begin to feel like hours. Hours feel like days ( “I feel sick”), and as days become months we slide back through history and the car becomes a participant in a jousting tournament or forced to walk the plank off a pirate ship. The tumultuous culmination of this journey sees the car and its inhabitants come face to face with a T-Rex. This encounter flips the book once more and suddenly we’re in the future where a robot takes your picture and replies in QR coded speech bubbles. Which work. Perfectly. Seriously, it’s the first time I’ve ever seen QR codes do something awesome. You scan these speech bubbles with a QR code reader and a little panel pops up with a ‘translation’ of what the robot is saying. God, I love this book.
You might be gathering that Are We There Yet? is quite a special book. It is. It works damn hard, and a lot of that wouldn’t actually work without the various elements that constitute it working. An awful sentence, yep, but what I’m trying to say is that there are moments when you can throw everything at something and have none of it work. Kind of like this paragraph. Anyway. You need to be able to handle fancy elements and Santat does and can. It’s outstanding work. It made me shriek with joy, this book, and stare at it in wonder because he brings something quite contemporary, new and quite delicious to the format. And he does it well. It would be so easy to do this badly, it really would.
One of the clever things about Santat’s work is that he brings the reader with him. Give me all the fanciness in the world, but if you forget about the reader then none of that’s worth a thing. Santat positions the reader central to the work and one of the smart ways in which he does that is his handling of text and captions. The below spread is the first ‘flip’ scene; look at the top left of the caption and then trace it round the page (note that white line which takes you with it, and lets you know that it’s okay) and look, in particular, at the point of that final box of the line.
It’s these final boxes – these caption bubbles? my terminology escapes me – that tells me that Santat is good. Because whatever way you turn the book, these points on the boxes lead you towards the page turn and hold you safe throughout the rest of the book.
The next page of the book? Turn left. And oh, the delicious, time-shift of such a gesture in a book built on reading left to right. Santat, I salute you.
The next page of the book? You got it. Turn left. Keep reading. No man left behind.
This is such a wonderful, smart and brilliantly constructed book. Like I said, it’s spectacular.
My thanks to Andersen for the review copy.
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