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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Metal Man

By Aaron Reynolds; illustrated by Paul Hoppe

“Makin’ junk out of junk” may not be Mama’s idea of a proper job, but it’s endlessly fascinating to young Devon, who spends his free time hanging out in the workshop of sculptor Mitch, whom he dubs Metal Man. Mitch’s atelier is just the space to attract a boy with sweltering summer time on his hands--a noisy garage filled with drums of scrap metal, power tools, and a welding torch that kicks up a shower of sparks that can sting a t-shirted boy like a thousand killer bees. Devon certainly doesn’t come for the company though; up ’til now Mitch has never had much to say beyond warning Devon to keep out of the way. Today, though, the terse artist asks Devon what the boy sees in his latest work and, evidently satisfied with the answer, invites him to suggest his own theme for a piece. Devon’s reticent to share his idea for a house within a star, since adults haven’t established much of a track record for taking his views seriously, but Mitch gruffly coaxes the vision into daylight and, under Devon’s direction, makes it tangible. When Mama sees the gleaming metal creation that bears Devon’s name on the back, she klunks it down on the air conditioner, that place where everybody hangs out, and finally gives Devon and Mitch their props.

Reynolds works the picture-book format with the same mastery Mitch applies to rusty iron. A few offhand remarks, a couple of brief conversations, and a smattering of the young narrator’s own observations are transformed into a remarkably clear portrait of Devon as a kid with a lot more going on inside than the adults in his life have noticed or acknowledged. Mama’s views on all this time-wasting are summed up in her “junk out of junk” remark about Mitch’s enterprise, and school hasn’t been supportive either: “When I hang out with the metal man, I get it right. I see what I see. Not like school.” And Devon’s mad and growly reluctance to put his star-house vision into words painfully and brilliantly realized in a single page of staccato dialogue is the clear culmination of having his notions brushed aside once too often: “I got a spark in my head, but I ain’t sayin it with my mouth. I don’t know, I say. It’s a lie, but I tell it anyway.” “Yeah, you do,” he says. “Don’t be scared, boy. Bring it on out to play.” Given a shot of encouragement by his idol, Devon’s an artistic force to be reckoned with. Not only can he articulate the shape his star house should take, but he also demonstrates that he’s been watching Mitch’s craft with sensitive understanding all along, and he can wait patiently and trustingly while the cutting, welding, grinding, and polishing processes turn the most unpromising materials into a showpiece.

Hoppe’s mixed-media illustrations supply the heat and burly muscle the text demands. A controlled hodgepodge of broad brushstrokes and squiggly pencil lines, detailed representations of Mitch at work, and subtle backdrops of simplified forms and diminished colors all invite close, lingering inspection. Just as Reynolds deploys words economically, Hoppe limits his palette, mainly employing two dominant colors. Browns and related tans handle mundane affairs, the surfaces we all see, from the creamy chocolate skin tones of the African-American cast, to the drab workshop and the oxidized metals Mitch will call to life. Blues suggest possibility--the heavy machinery that transforms the metal, the hot blue sparks of the torch, the blue background behind Devon as he conjures his star house, the blue shadows cast by Devon when Mitch first invites him into the creative process, even the blue blouse Mama wears when she recognizes her son’s interior energy. If Devon is consistently shown as an ordinary kid, speaking volumes through supple body language and facial expressions, Mitch is variously portrayed as a mystery man, a sometimes giant, larger-than-life idol, or an accessible friend, just as Devon views him. He looms over Devon in their initial conversation, abates in size when they work side by side at the table saw, and fills a full two pages as a grinder-wielding titan, bringing out the shine in the metal (and, metaphorically, the boy) that was under there all the time.

Will Devon ever create these wonders entirely on his own? Who knows? Reynolds’ audience will certainly agree he’s too young to handle the tools and torch just yet. But whatever medium he ultimately adopts as his own or even if he never undertakes an art project at all Devon knows that he can find meaning in visual forms others may miss, that his ideas have value, and that some adults can listen and respect. It’s a message that any young artist in the making will welcome, but one that even listeners who will never progress beyond stick men can appreciate, too.

Elizabeth Bush, Reviewer

Big Picture Image

Cover image by Paul Hoppe from Metal Man ©2008. Used by permission of Charlesbridge.

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This page was last updated on July 1, 2008.