Lenny & Lucy
Phillip C. Stead
Erin E. Stead
Allen & Unwin, 2016
48pp., hbk., RRP $A24.99
Through the dark woods with its tall, foreboding trees and across an old wooden bridge stands the new house that will now be home for Peter, his dad, and his dog, Harold. Their car is laden with all their worldly possessions and he has his dad and his dogbut even those do not make Peter feel comfortable as he starts his life over in such unfamiliar surroundings. The woods seem sinister in their wintry silence and Peter is very disconcerted – terrible things hide in trees. Even though Harold would like to help, he can’t – even his presence is not enough – and all night he and Peter lie awake thinking about those terrible things. Next morning Peter has an idea about how he can keep the dark woods on the other side of the bridge where they belong…
It is easy to see why illustrator Erin E. Stead has won the Caldecott Medal in the past because the mood of this story about being resilient and conquering fear is set and captured brilliantly in the subdued colour palette that could be dubbed “fifty shades of grey” with just pops of muted colours for the characters, like the few bright spots in Peter’s current life. Even the wallpaper is in grey tones and its busy floral pattern contrast perfectly with the window through which Peter and Harold see the tree trunks standing straight and tall like cell bars, imprisoned by their imaginations. But amidst the greys and the characters are other colour spots like the front door and the solitary leaf hanging from on autumn that are symbolic of light and life remaining when all else seems lost. The owl who appears even before the title page remains a constant, an unseen guardian. And as the woods, the bridge and the house remain grey in the closing pictures and the pops of colour become more plentiful, there is the suggestion that they are receding into the background as new life comes back into Peter’s world.
The text is very measured and its pace is reflective of the way that Peter and Harold gradually come to terms with this new situation. While we don’t know why Peter and his father are having to start their lives afresh in a place clearly a long way from familiarity, there is much in the choice of words and their repetition that take away any scariness and reassure the reader that safety and security abound for Peter. His fears are implied – “terrible things hid in trees” – and while this might not be the ideal bedtime story for the very young, nevertheless it would be a wonderful way of helping a child come to terms with the “monsters under the bed” especially if they built their own Lenny and Lucy.
But despite being dark both visually and conceptually, there is nevertheless a compelling storyline that keeps the reader engaged through to its uplifting end. Just as his imagination has Peter trapped, it is also that which sets him free – there are almost echoes of Max and the Wild Things as he relies on himself to sort himself out. And with this growing confidence, Peter takes the first steps towards his new life.
The more I read this book, the more I got involved and went back and read and reread it getting more and more from it each time. It is only the third from this team and for one of those to be the 2011 Caldecott Medal winner speaks volumes about their talent and their connection and synergy.