Reviewed by Jon J Muth
The day before Traces arrived on my doorstep, I saw a red fox dash across a field into the woods near my house. I wondered if it had some means of moving through the snow without leaving prints, because I couldn’t find any tracks.
We do not move through the world without leaving a wake. This is both a joy and a sobering reminder of our situation. It is also the subject of Fox and Kuskin’s delicate, graceful, new picture book.
Fox, the author of many excellent books, often for young readers, gives the book an energetic and distilled poetry. The opening and recurring line,“Something, someone was just here,” creates the rhythm and the words, and pictures interlace to address the mystery that holds our interest—who is it? She is such a fine writer that it’s a real delight when she steps fully into the wonder of children’s thinking and asks, do shadows sometimes stay, after we leave?
Children draw with an earnestness that is impossible to counterfeit. Its beauty cannot usually be coaxed out by an adult hand. The charming medallion sun, torn-paper clouds and watercolor ribbon of the horizon found on these spreads all feel like the naïve and studious work of a dedicated seven-year-old. Their matter-of-factness is disarming. By choosing to make the pictures this way, Kuskin, a poet who both writes and illustrates, is literally revealing the traces her hand leaves behind. This choice fits the premise of the book beautifully.
The illustrations are almost all double-page spreads, which work well in creating an environment to discover the passage of each creature who travels through it. The pictures are much fun and fit the story perfectly.
Near the end, in collage artwork describing “something” that leaves its traces in “scraps of paper waving,” we see a piece of newspaper headline with reference to the tragedy at the Beslan School in North Ossetia, Russia, in 2004. Another refers to Iraq, and another mentions Israel, the U.S. and the Palestinians. The wonder and sense of isolated discovery in the rest of the book—crinkly paper flowers, dinosaur feet leaving tracks, children’s shadows without their young casters—are left behind, and we are bounced out of the fictional dream.
The reason the red fox I saw left no prints is that the fox and its tracks were one and the same. When the fox left, its tracks went with it. All traces left with its intentions. Humans aren’t like this. Our traces resonate for a very long time.
I now want to read the book these two extraordinarily talented artists will create when they speak directly to the issue they’ve raised. Ages 7-9. (Apr.)
Jon J Muth, who received a Caldecott Honor for Zen Shorts, is most recently the author/illustrator of Zen Ties (Scholastic, Feb.).