Two new graphic works have helped me deal with my thoughts and feelings about the recent presidential election. How could so many people have voted for Donald Trump, when so many more of us are dismayed and frightened at his rise in political power? For us, the hopefulness of New Year’s Day is overshadowed by the looming prospect of President-elect Trump’s inauguration on January 20. We –along with many people around the globe–fear what his formal ascent into office will bring. From our point of view, he is so unfit to govern.
Fittingly, the books that have given me further insight and perspective on the recent past and this new year are ones that emphasize physical vantage points. Brendan Wenzel’s picture book They All Saw A Cat (2016) will hold appeal for all ages, pre-readers on up. The Gaze of Drifting Skies: A Treasury of Bird’s Eye Cartoon Views (2016), edited by Jonathan Barli, will enthrall detail-loving readers tween and older. Both books are also vastly enjoyable in themselves—without any thought given to current politics!
The charming, colorful pages of They All Saw a Cat use line, color, and perspective to show how dramatically viewpoints differ in the natural world. Author/illustrator Wenzel creates thirteen vignettes spotlighting different ways a cat is seen. Where a growling dog sees a thin, cringing cat slinking away and a fox giving chase perceives a fearfully fluffed-up cat racing away, a terrified mouse has an entirely different view. Its predatory feline foe looms large, with out-sized teeth and claws, all against a blood-red background. Another potential victim, a fish, views the seemingly enormous eyes of the cat through the watery, soft-focused lens of a fish bowl. These differences and others are united by the image and refrain of “The cat walked through the world, with its whiskers, ears, and paws. . .”
Through a bee’s multifaceted eyes, the cat is a series of dots, while to a flea riding its rump the cat seems a savannah of gigantic grass. I particularly like the double page spread that opposes the below and above ground views of a worm and a bat, each apprehending and creating images that rely on senses other than sight. The upside-down view of the worm, sensed through vibration and shown as multiple straight lines, has a symmetrical counterpart in the dotted, right side-up view echolated by the high-flying bat. The scientific facts underlying these colorful pages may for young readers provoke discussion and possibly research. (One flaw here is Wenzel’s omission of back matter pages, providing basic facts and perhaps offering further resources.)
This picture book ends in satisfying flourishes, with several pages reinforcing our awareness of the viewpoints of others. A delightful image of the cat drawn as an impossible composite of the book’s differing perceptions is followed by a double-spread featuring all the characters, including the young boy for whom the cat is a pet. Finally, we see that even the cat has its own limited perspective: peering into a pool, the feline sees only a wavering, watery version of itself. Readers are taken out of ourselves to think about how others see the world and themselves.
Applying this lesson to President-elect Trump, I have somewhat more understanding of the vastly different views of people who voted for him. But I still find it impossible to empathize with Trump himself, even if I grant him his own distorted world view. I feel too much like the mouse, aware that I am by background and belief prey to the increasing number and scope of predators that a predatory President Trump brings with him. I do not have the ability of some other prey, such as the high-flying bird in They All Saw the Cat, to soar above and away from my seemingly small and ineffectual enemies. And what will happen once that bird lands and is perhaps within their grasp . . .?
I am also fearful that impatient President Trump’s view from the White House will remain as distorted as it has been from the 66th floor of his New York City penthouse. From great heights, whether literal or metaphorical, others do indeed seem small and insignificant. It takes time and patience to perceive and recognize all that is unfolding below. That is one of the tenets that fueled the cartoon fad spotlighted by editor Jonathan Barli (himself a graphic designer and historian) in The Gaze of Drifting Skies: A Treasury of Bird’s Eye View Cartoons.
As Barli explains in his introduction, this fad flourished in late 19th through mid-20th century newspapers and magazines, at its peak from 1900 -1920. Readers then had the time and inclination to pore over panoramic views, which typically lacked a visual focal point but through visual details implicitly commented on their subject matter. Some of these popular cartoonists poked fun at human nature, while others were more pointedly critical about contemporary life and nostalgic for less-hectic times. At their most popular, bird’s eye view cartoons were drawn as full page or even double-page spreads, typically in black-and-white. Color only became standard well into the 20th century.
Barli divides his 176 page book—meant to be savored slowly—into seven chapters: Small Town U.S.A., The Big City, The Battlefields, Abroad, Back Home, Lands of Fantasy, and Once Again, in Color. (Omitting a Table of Contents with this information is a flaw here.) Readers who peruse cartoons such as “The Joys of Spring” or “The Skating Season Opens” for the many actions they depict will smile and wince with delight. In other crowded scenes, such as “The 5:15” or “Anything to Satisfy Them! . . . The Bicyclists,” the expressions on individuals’ faces also reward careful viewing. Fans of Dr. Seuss will note with delight how his four cartoons here, aptly placed in the ‘Lands of Fantasy’ chapter, are filled with very active and expressive cats, fish, turtles, as well as other, less easily-identified critters! In this chapter, Seuss fans will also enjoy Arch Dale’s “The DooDads Meet the Sea Serpent.”
With the Christmas shopping season just over, I note the frequent appearance of its hectic events—along with other holidays—as bird’s eye view topics. Some of my other favorites in this compendium include (for their distinctive takes on the fad) “A Ball’s Eye View of a Home Run” and “Worm’s-Eye View of Us—A Fire.” I also enjoy the vertiginous, angled perspectives in “The March Wind” and “Their First Day Back Home,” the latter cartoon also making effective use of shaded drawing, atypical for this fad. Careful or return readers will note the different drawing styles of specific artists (though having to turn often to the back page list of illustrations for full artist names is another design flaw here).
Would President-elect Trump take the time to see what is happening in “The G-L-O-R-I-O-U-S Fourth!”? Or would he not notice in this cartoon (by Johnny Gruelle, later a children’s author and illustrator) the several blazes either in full flame or just starting as fire crackers explode? What explosive impact might President Trump’s impatient, opinionated take on patriotism have on our country as he avowedly works to “make American great again”? Much of the world is watching, wondering, and worrying.
A first step still to be seen would be President-elect Trump’s willingness to plan for reports and prepare for high-level meetings and contacts. Will he move past aptly-named tweets and casual penthouse-level views to see the whole picture in depth? Or will he continue dangerously to accept and promulgate superficial, sometimes inaccurate information, ignoring details and differences? One memorable bird’s eye cartoon here by Harrison Cady (another children’s book illustrator and author) is titled “A Quiet April First at Tinkham’s Corners.” Close perusal, though, shows just what tomfoolery and minor disasters are actually taking place on that April Fools Day. All great fun . . . on the page, at least, enhanced by the gap between cartoon title and content. But if the U.S.A. ends up with a president who never reads beyond titles or headlines, the savage joke may be on us.
As we stare into 2017, let us continue to look far, wide, and deep—and encourage others to do the same. Different viewpoints should not blind us to real dangers.