Last night your correspondent had the pleasure of attending the launch party for the new picture book by William Joyce, The Man in the Moon, held at Books of Wonder, one of the premiere independent book stores in New York City. This is great news for fans of illustrated books and connoisseurs of children’s literature, as Joyce is a major talent who has been absent from the publishing world for too long, devoting his time and creative energies to movies like Toy Story (1995), Robots (2005) and Meet the Robinsons (2007).
Before looking at The Man in the Moon, first a brief word about Books of Wonder. Located at West 18th Street in Chelsea, Books of Wonder has been an oasis for book lovers for over three decades. I have been able to find everything and anything on their shelves, from magnificent facsimile editions of L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz books (complete with color plates), to opulent editions of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, to Edward Bloor’s masterful London Calling. In addition to books, there is a gallery in the back of the shop, complete with original works and limited-edition lithographs, a vast selection of vintage books and even an (under renovation) coffee shop. Anyone with a love of books, children’s lit or illustration will find Books of Wonder a must-go destination. Their Web site is: www.booksofwonder.com.
The Man in the Moon is Joyce’s first picture book since Big Time Olie in 2002 and the first non-Rolie Polie Olie book since The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs in 1996. Before my uninitiated readers blanch at such titles, let me state unequivocally that Joyce produces pictures books and children’s lit of an exceptionally high caliber, celebrated for his wit, his stylish watercolors and pencil drawings, and his infectious sense of the ridiculous. His 1993 book Santa Calls is an Art Nouveau fantasia celebrating the Santa Claus myth with the most perfectly idealized Toyland to ever find itself in the pages of a book, and A Day With Wilbur Robinson (1990) is, in many ways, a sun-kissed Art Deco rift on You Can’t Take It With You. And his hilarious Dinosaur Bob and His Adventures with the Family Lazardo (1988) might be best described as Nick and Nora Charles and their pet dinosaur.
If I sound besotted by Joyce’s work, I confess that I am, gloriously so. The arrival of The Man in the Moon is an occasion for handsprings, unbridled kazoo playing and infectious hilarity. And the news that The Man in the Moon is the first of an extended series, The Guardians of Childhood, including both picture books and prose novels, might inspire back flips, cartwheels and street-corner harmonizing. Let the revels begin.
As is fitting for the first book in a series, The Man in the Moon is an origin story. It tells how the Man in the Moon got there, and outlines his conception of those mythical beings who would watch over the children of the world. These Guardians would later evolve into Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Mother Goose, the Sandman and the Tooth Fairy. The first prose novel in the series, Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King will be available in bookstores in about two months.
Joyce has lost nothing of the richness of his illustrative style during his long hiatus from books. Most devotees treasure his incandescent watercolors because of their distinctive sparkle inspired by a 1930s sensibility. Like the best 1930s patter, Joyce draws on the balls of his feet, and his art is nimble, freewheeling and somehow screwball. His books have a distinctive rhythm, much like a Little Rascals short or a classic screen comedy.
There is much of that in Man in the Moon, but also something more. Here, while Joyce delivers some pages with his customary Art Deco glow, much of the book harks back to a more Eastern European tradition. There is almost a Russian folk art quality to many of the illustrations, with brings an unusual gravitas to the proceedings. This is completely in keeping with the text of the story, which perhaps carries greater emotional and thematic depth than his previous work.
Of course, one of the secret pleasure s of reading Joyce is looking at his illustrations and wondering at their inspiration. A Baby Boomer steeped in a glorious period of American pop culture, Joyce’s memory seems to be housed in his eye as much as his brain. The origin of the Man in the Moon (or MiM, as he’s called) calls to mind Superman comics as much as Moses. Once on the Moon, he sees starfish that look for all the world like the Disney version of Capt. Nemo’s Nautilus, and it’s only after looking at the giant caterpillar on the moon that astute readers wonder … is Joyce channeling Ray Harryhausen’s Mooncalf from First Men in the Moon?
As the series progresses, both picture books and prose novels will detail how MiM created the Guardians of Childhood and also relate individual adventures. One cannot help but wonder at the audacity of the conception. What Joyce is undertaking is a remarkable feat of imaginative creation. Much like C. S. Lewis or J. R. R. Tolkien – though with a lighter touch and greater wit – Joyce has promised to create his own cosmology. His goal is not only to recreate St. Nick, Mother Goose, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny and Sandman, but to weave them into an interconnected narrative that is the basis of a new myth. Where it will all end and what shape his final cosmology will take are now unknown, but Joyce has never failed to delight, amuse and enchant this reader, and I know that the Guardians of Childhood are in good hands.
The Guardians of Childhood
William Joyce Display at Books of Wonder