Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Book Review: The Stories Julian Tells by Ann Cameron (1981)

Julian is a young African-American boy with a talent for spinning yarns. Whether he’s making excuses for eating his mother’s pudding or convincing his little brother, Huey, that cats come from catalogs, he always has a great story to tell, and a dad who appreciates and cultivates his big imagination.

I was surprised right away by how beautiful the writing is in this book. It’s simple enough to be read by a newly independent reader, but it doesn’t sacrifice art for the sake of simplicity. Author Ann Cameron weaves lovely figures of speech in and out of her sentences, and her words project strong, complete images into the reader’s mind. Here’s just one example:

My father is a big man with wild black hair. When he laughs, the sun laughs in the windowpanes. When he thinks, you can almost see his thoughts sitting on all the tables and chairs. When he is angry, me and my little brother, Huey, shiver to the bottom of our shoes.

There are a lot of ways to tell a reader that a character’s father has a strong influence on him, and a strong presence, but this is by far the most appealing way I can imagine. It’s also a very accessible description, even though it’s not completely straightforward. Kids can recognize all of those words, and if they pause to consider them, they can decode the meaning of Cameron’s metaphors.

Another great strength of this book is its dreamlike style of illustration. Julian’s imagination, and his dad’s, seem to consume each of the drawings, bringing elements of the adventures they invent right into their everyday lives. The visual cues provided by the illustrations also help kids to understand the more poetic tone of this book as compared with other early chapter books, which will give them a little more context for understanding Cameron’s style.

This book is so skinny it often gets lost on my library shelves. Now that I’ve read it, I can’t wait to recommend it to my early chapter book readers - especially the boys who need something beyond Magic Tree House and Star Wars.

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