I confess that I have greatly struggled with today’s Wordless Wednesday post. This book is so beautiful, so clever, and so powerful – words just don’t do it justice. I have been tempted to simply post the photos and the awesome Q&A with Marla Frazee; but that probably isn’t fair. I’ll do my best to analyze it, but please keep in mind – it is worth so much more than my words. Take a look at this heartbreakingly beautiful story of two characters who are much different than they seem, and end up needing each other much more than they realized. Here is The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee, 2014.
The book opens with a seemingly endless field and an older man scowling while he works. The monotony, starkness of the field, and color scheme are broken on the next spread by the passing of a bright circus train. It seems like it will go by without incidence, and only slightly interrupting the old man, but then something is seen catapulting from the train as it hits a bump.
The farmer rushes to inspect and discovers a tiny clown. The farmer takes him home, tries to feed him, cleans him up – and suddenly the tiny clown is a little boy in a costume. His painted face is washed away and his true emotions are on display.
It is a restless night for them both. In the morning, the farmer attempts to cheer him up with some silly antics, and they spend the day doing farm chores together and winning each other’s friendship.
Once exhausted from all the work, they head off to picnic and rest in the shade. Suddenly, the boy is excited to see the train returning – in search of him. They rush to meet the train and there is a reunion of the tiny clown and his family. The farmer and the clown say their goodbyes and part ways with obvious changes in their own moods and appearances (and “souvenirs” too!).
Now, let me try to put into words why I love this book so deeply, and why I think it works so well as a wordless book.
First up, the color palette. In most of the wordless books I have featured so far in this series the simple plot takes the first point. But I have to be totally honest here and say that this book hooked me with its colors. (Not to mention the creator, Marla Frazee. I am no shy fan of her work.) The palette of the book is very warm and earthy. They would be almost too depressing were it not for the excellently added and positioned pops of entertaining colors. On every page, the farmer’s world is cloaked in drab, muted browns which makes the intrusion of the brightly colored clown all the more noticeable and effective.
Secondly, the characters. Oh, I love Marla’s characters. I have studied her style relentlessly, trying to learn from and dissect the beauty in all the simple elements. The characters are perfect in their contrast to each other and their body structures are highly humorous to me. Also, the ability Marla has to exude so much emotion and expression with such simple strokes in their faces completely astounds me.
Third, the drama. While the plot is relatively simple, the drama surrounding it is quite complex. Two contrasting worlds completely colliding, and not just two worlds as in farming and circus. But the two worlds’ differences are expressed multiple times with the profession, the sizes, the colors, and the age. It is pretty rare to have an elderly person take center stage in a picture book, though not unheard of or unloved when done so effectively (favorite examples being Amos & Marguerite). It is a character collision done incredibly well. The effect is stunning and emotional.
Lastly, the surprise element. I try not to give away the existence of a surprise in a picture book, as often as I can; but this time I actually read the Q&A before I wrote my review since I was struggling so much with my own words. Since Marla let the cat out of the bag (or monkey out of the train), I feel ok about it. But I also think it is quite important for this story. This is a very emotionally heavy book and I can totally see how it would have felt a bit devastating to leave the story without a humorous, quirky, life-changing twist for the farmer we grew to love. This is the power of a picture book as marvelous as this one. With every turn of the page, your heart moves. There are ups and downs, surprises, and lots of emotions. But a good book never leaves you hopeless in the end. There is always something to look back on and smile. Thanks for that relief, Marla.
And now to the main event. I am so honored that Marla took time out to answer my questions. This is one busy lady and one of my illustration favorites, so getting the chance to hear a bit personally from her is such a huge treat! And now I share it with you.
Question: What motivated you to create a wordless picture book as opposed to a traditional text + illustration book?
Q: Was there ever text or narration in your head for The Farmer and the Clown or did it always perform silently?
MF: It was always, from the beginning, almost like a silent film in my head.
Q: Is there a specific storyline and conclusion to The Farmer and the Clown that you hope the reader gets or is it a bit open-ended in your opinion?
MF: In my first few dummies, the last page was of the farmer returning home alone after saying goodbye to the clown. At first, he was kicking up his heels while wearing the clown’s hat. That didn’t seem like an emotionally honest moment to me once I got into the story and came to understand these characters. So I redrew it the way I thought the farmer would really feel – and it was devastating. I kept thinking that it may be honest, but it wasn’t fair of me to end the book in such a heartbreaking way. The monkey took me by surprise as much as it will eventually take the farmer by surprise. But as soon as he appeared in a sketch, I knew that was the right ending for the book.
I’ve had that experience one other time and it was the final illustration of Hush Little Baby, which almost operates like a wordless book. The peddler, who has now sold all his goods to the family in the book, is shown on the last page. At first I drew him walking out of town with a small sack on his back. But while sketching and without thinking, he appeared on my paper sitting on a stump and strumming his small mandolin and singing what will become the folk song. And it surprised me as much as anyone!
Those are the kind of ah-ha moments authors and illustrators live for.
Q: Is it a more challenging experience to create a wordless book than a text book or is every book different, period?
MF: I think this is the current assumption and I don’t think it is true for me. Finding the right balance between the words and pictures in Liz Garton Scanlon’s evocative – and not at all narrative – All the World text was just as challenging as this wordless book I made. And Hush Little Baby, too. Making sure words and pictures work together is maybe even harder than concentrating on one or the other by itself. The difference between dancing with a partner and dancing alone – both being an impossible stretch for me.
Q: Is there a soundtrack that you hear for The Farmer and the Clown?
MF: I often hear Woody Guthrie, who I think of as the Mother Goose of the music world.
Q: Do you consider wordless picture books a better solitary experience or more exciting as a read-aloud?
MF: My fondest memories of reading picture books as a child are solitary ones. I was read to, I know it. And I know that is really important. But my own memories are all about when I could disappear into a book all by myself and I could read the picture story without any adult interference and it was private and magical and all mine to discover.
Q: Have you ever shared The Farmer and the Clown in a storytime? Do you have tips for how it or any other wordless picture books could be read aloud?
MF: I have many times. I like to say what I think is happening and leave room for other interpretations. For instance, when the farmer and the clown are having that first supper, I may say that it doesn’t look like the clown is eating. Someone else may think he is going to eat or has already had a bite. At the end, I say “and the farmer waves goodbye to the train” or something and I wait until some child observes that “they’ve traded hats!” I like it when that comes from the group. I trust that someone will find it and say it and it always happens that way. On the last page I may say, “and the farmer goes back home” and I let them discover and comment on the monkey following behind the farmer. They always, always do.
Q: Do you have any favorite wordless picture books?
MF: Oh, yeah. I think Peter Spier’s Noah’s Ark is brilliant. Tomie dePaola’s Pancakes for Breakfast. Patrick McDonnell’s South and Peggy Rathmann’s Goodnight Gorilla were both seminal books that The Farmer and the Clown pays homage to. But I don’t gravitate to wordless books. Often, for my taste, they seem too plot-driven and unemotional. But when they work on an emotional level, and deliver that emotional punch, there’s nothing like them.
Q: And lastly, because you never really read a picture book alone and I adore brainstorming book groupings, do you have any books that you consider to pair well with The Farmer and the Clown, wordless or not?
MF: I will leave this to the experts. I have no idea!
Thanks so much to Marla Frazee for joining in the conversation, but especially for creating so many amazing books that will stick with readers forever. Go check this one out. I know you’ll love it.