As somebody who was a math whiz in high school and also an artist, I have always been fond of M. C. Escher’s artwork. There’s just something about his tessellations and topsy-turvy optical illusions that appeals to me, and I’d imagine I’m not alone—Escher is definitely geeky art. Palazzo Inverso is a new picture book by D. B. Johnson which is inspired by Escher and draws heavily from his artwork. (And, yes, calling it “Escher for little geeks” implies that Escher isn’t for little ones, which isn’t entirely true, but I think this is a great introduction for younger kids to some of Escher’s ideas.)
First, I’ll give you my six-year-old’s description:
It’s a book that you can flip over, and there’s words on the other side. On the end [the endpapers] there’s fishies swimming on the page, and if you look at the pink, it’s birdies. I like it because there’s people standing on the ceiling when you first read through it. Also, I really like it because you can flip it over and it looks funny and it mixes up your mind. I wonder why you’re always turning it upside down and right-side up. And I wonder how fish can swim in the sky.
The book tells the story of Mauk, the Master’s assistant. He walks through the oddly-built Palazzo, noting things like water flowing upwards or workers walking on their hands. It turns out that he’s been secretly rotating the drawing as the Master works, resulting in a crazy inverted Palazzo. The sepia-toned, soft-contoured illustrations are Escher-as-children’s-book, and while not all of them are quite as mind-bending as the original, Johnson has another trick up his sleeve.
The story is printed across the bottom of each page. When you reach the last page, the text wraps up the side and then goes upside-down across the top of the page—so you turn the book over and read it back to the beginning. The way that the meaning of the illustrations change when you turn them over is ingenious. One of my favorite pages is Mauk rowing in a boat across the lake: the first time through you see the rippling reflection of the Palazzo, light against the dark water. But on his return, the Palazzo is dark, a silhouette against a lighter sky.
You can read the entire story online at Johnson’s website, but the beauty of the physical book is actually experiencing the flip. I think for kids especially being able to turn the book over and seeing that it is the same drawing, just from a different perspective, is a particularly satisfying experience. Also, the last sentence of the book runs back into the first, making it an infinite loop. (Fun for your kids, though you may want to draw the line on how many times you’ll read it in one sitting.)
My only complaint is that sentences cross over page turns. I’m sure it was an intentional choice, but when reading aloud to a child it makes for awkward pauses if they’re not done looking at the picture. I’d prefer it to be more like the online version, where the sentences begin and end on the same page.
Both of my kids (ages three and six) were fascinated by the book, and they loved the fish-bird tessellations on the endpapers. At first all they saw were the fish until I gave them some hints. Now I’m eager to find my book of Escher drawings so they can see the inspiration behind Palazzo Inverso.
Palazzo Inverso, published by Houghton Mifflin, retails for $17.00 and is available on Amazon.
Wired: Escher-inspired artwork that works upside-down and an infinite loop story will delight the geeklings. A great way to introduce Escher to younger kids.
Tired: Splitting sentences across page turns isn’t great for a picture book. The writing is weaker than the artwork, but it’s serviceable.
All images from D. B. Johnson, used with permission. GeekDad received a review copy of the book.
Update (5/5/2010, 1:40pm EDT): I got an email from D. B. Johnson explaining that the sentence splits are actually there for a good reason. You can actually turn the book upside down at any two-page spread, not just when you hit the last page. The incomplete sentences can either flow to the next page or to the upside-down text above, giving it a different meaning. So I retract my “Tired” statement—it’s a brilliant idea! Now I just wish there was a little author’s note or something in there, but I guess sharper readers might pick up on that themselves.