A LITTLE LIBRARY - Artistry, magic, mystery combine in 'Chalk'

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My newest picture book selection came about because of my husband's childhood passion for dinosaurs.

He has been sweetly indulgent of my new habit of bringing home tall stacks of picture books to read for this column. Sometimes he even reads them with me. His perspective always adds a bit of insight I do not possess.

For instance, when we read "Chalk," by Bill Thomson (Marshall Cavendish Children, 2010), my husband pointed out that the dinosaur-shaped playground ride on the cover is clearly a tyrannosaurus rather than an allosaurus, since it has two claws instead of three on its front legs. He also noted that this particular dinosaur seems to be smaller than other specimens; I can only presume this is due to its plastic beginnings.

I dare not dispute either of these expert observations because I have seen the tattered, coverless Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs, a keepsake from my husband's childhood. Suffice it to say, "Chalk" quickly became a clear favorite in our household.

"Chalk" is a wordless story nevertheless filled with action and suspense. In its pages, three children walking in the rain come across an empty playground. A mysterious gift bag hangs from the mouth of a green dinosaur spring ride. When the children begin to sketch pictures with the chalk they find in the bag, they discover that whatever they draw comes to life.

The magic in this story is compounded by Thomson's extraordinary illustrations. His paintings in acrylic and colored pencil achieve an incredible amount of detail, capturing the exact textures of chalk, rubber rain boots and the zipper on a jacket. Clouds and shadows appear as if in photographs. A note at the end of the book emphasizes Thomson's commitment to "traditional painting techniques," since it is so easy to wonder if the artist has been assisted by computer technology.

Although CG special effects have been ruled out, reading "Chalk" is an undeniably cinematic experience. Thomson, an associate professor of illustration, has carefully planned out the plot and angle of each scene. He uses perspective to deepen the sense of mystery already created by the storyline. He positions the reader looking down at the children through shadowy leaves, or standing by the dinosaur ride to watch the children approaching.

Close-up shots capture each child as the moment of inspiration strikes, and he or she decides what to draw on the pavement. In these shots, the children's expressions of excitement, delight and mischief fill the pages and are immediately recognizable. My husband remarked that anyone can see him or herself in this book. Thomson's characters are multicultural, yet adventure, not culture, remains the driving force of the narrative.

"Chalk" is a tale infused with both wonder and danger, and the lack of text does not detract from its impact. With nothing to read, child and adult reader are equal adventurers, exploring each page for the story it contains. In Thomson's compelling narrative, the kids are the heroes. It is not an afternoon that they will quickly forget. Full of magic and mystery, "Chalk" does not disappoint.

The fact that it features dinosaurs is just another reason to love it.

Zoey Smith works at the Whitman College Bookstore and is helping expand the children's book section. She can be reached at smithze@whitman.edu.

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