Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Junkyard, by Mike Austin

It’s always a delight when a children’s book takes you by surprise, and that is exactly what happened with Junkyard, by Mike Austin (born 1963).  I have been woefully unfamiliar with Austin’s work, but was so tickled by Junkyard that I will now be on the lookout for his other books.

Junkyard is the story of two robots – square, boxy creations with gears rotating in their chest – who clean out a Junkyard by eating the trash.  Once done, they plant trees and fruits and vegetables, build an idyllic playground, invite their friends over and… make it a paradise of what was once a wasteland.

Though Austin certainly never hammers his theme too heavily, the environmental mission of the book is clear.  This come through particularly in Austin’s digital illustrations, which are cluttered and ‘messy’ in the earlier pages of the book, and clean, streamlined and invited in the latter half.
Austin’s first introduction to drawing came from his mother during his boyhood.  He remembers, she showed me how to hold a pencil and draw faces.  I loved everything about drawing; the waxy texture of crayons, sharpening a pencil, an empty sheet of paper just waiting to be scribbled on.  For many people, the smell of Play-Doh brings them back to their childhood, for me it’s the smell of a freshly kneaded eraser.  I loved redrawing the Sunday comics, mostly the Peanuts gang and the Wizard of Id.  My favorite Christmas present of all time was the Peanuts Treasury, the greatest collection of comics the world had ever seen!  I still have the book….

As with most authors of children’s literature, the gestation can take decades, the seed often in a childhood experience.  Talking about Junkyard, Austin remembered: When I was twelve years old, my best friend had the brilliant idea of sneaking into the local junkyard to find better go-cart wheels and more wood for our tree fort.  I had never been to the junkyard before; it was off-limits.  If we got caught, I would be grounded forever.

We rode our bikes down the dirt road to the back of the junkyard, ditched them behind a bush and proceeded to get sneaky.  We crawled under the fence and stood in awe of teetering stacks of rusted cars, tangled rolls of oxidized copper wire, and mound upon mound of mufflers.  It was both fascinating and terrifying.  In the middle of all that junk was a big crane that I swore looked just like a giant alien robot, arm outstretched, clenching a fistful of bent metal.  I was already starting to freak out when my friend opened the trunk of an old car.  A giant opossum jumped out, landing at his feet.  It screeched and we screamed, dove under the fence, and pedaled home as fast as we could.  I never did find any go-cart wheels that summer, but I did end up with a huge stack of cartons featuring a giant alien robot, a killer opossum, and my friend peeing his pants.

Junkyard has a distinctly millennial American feel – while cluttered and messy and perhaps past its prime, still scrappy, filled with ingenuity, and hopeful of a better tomorrow.  Junkyard is quite terrific.

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