My seven year old's love of visual arts, especially paper collage, means our family is often drawn to picture books that include collage elements. We're especially fond of books by Lois Ehlert and Marthe Jocelyn, but we're always on the lookout for other author/illustrators who utilize paper collage in their books. Just recently we discovered the work of Ashely Bryan, and are in awe at the beautiful things he's created with paper in his picture book version of the hymn text All Things Bright and Beautiful.
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If you're familiar with the hymn, you may be humming it already. Penned by Cecil F. Alexander in the 1800s, it has a well-known tune and words. The familiar refrain is: "All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all." The text in this picture book opens and ends with that chorus. In between, you'll find the words to all four verses of the hymn which list and celebrate many of the bright and beautiful things God made, including flowers, birds, mountains, rivers, sunsets, mornings, wind, sun, seasons, and fruits.
That's the only text in the book, except for a note on the author at the end and the actual musical notation provided for the hymn. I'm glad both of those are included. The melody is a 17th century English melody, beautiful in its simplicity. And I was especially delighted to learn more about the hymn writer. Although I've sung this hymn for years, I never knew that the Cecil F. Alexander who wrote it is actually Cecil Frances Alexander, a woman. I also didn't know that she was also the writer one of my favorite (though not-often heard) Christmas hymns, Once in Royal David's City.
As lovely and familiar as the text is, what's eye-poppingly wonderful in this picture book are the gorgeous and brightly colored illustrations that Bryan made to accompany the words. Clearly this simple hymn of praise to God's creativity truly inspired him. Each page teems with pictures cut from bright bits of paper. The paper looks like card stock, most of bits in solid colors of various shades from pastels to brights, with only a very few textured papers. He doesn't need to rely on fancy textures, because the simple shapes, sometimes layered on top of one another, create so many intricate elements. And he pushes them all up against each other, so it really does feel as though each two-page spread is just bursting with life and color and movement.
There's no white space anywhere (unless there's an element in the illustration that calls for white paper scraps). Each illustration fills a two-page spread, pushing right up to the paper edges with no borders. And yet as busy as these collages are, none of the pages feels crowded, just exuberant. Even when Bryan really wants to create a sense of life teeming ~ for instance, in the ocean scene he creates for the first spread that reads "All creatures GREAT and small" ~ the elements are so well balanced that you just marvel over everything there is to see. A GREAT grinning whale cuts a swath through the blue and green and yellow paper ocean, with dozens of other smaller sea creatures swimming in the waves he's churned. A child will delight in seeing what's there: seahorses, crabs, fish of all shapes and colors, a seal, an octopus, a porpoise, starfish.
Each of the spreads contains only a few words of the hymn, and the illustration flows out of what's being described. I think my favorite illustration may come in the spread where Bryan illustrates the line "He made their glowing colors, He made their tiny wings." A gorgeous rainbow arcs over everything, with birds flying over and around it. The birds, themselves like bright bits of confetti, are cut from simple shapes and often two-toned, with smaller bits of paper cut for wings or tail feathers, overlying the original shape in a different color. And all the colors seem so wisely chosen. The colors of the birds are often in complementary colors to the particular strands of rainbow behind them.
The diversity of created things and the blooming colors also extend to pages on which Bryan has made collages of people. We love the illustrations for the lines "He gave us eyes to see them, And lips that we might tell..." which showcases a choir of singing children, in all shapes, sizes and colors.
I've not detailed many of the illustrations, but I promise you, this is a book you will love looking at along with children of all ages. The publisher states it's for children 2-5, and while I do think children as young as 2 will respond to the wonderful colors and the beautiful hymn, I'd also say that children older than 5 will find their interest very much sustained, especially if they have an appreciation for or interest in paper art.
It's all just a dazzling display of artistic paper craft, a delight to behold. What a great way to show creativity, and to place it in its proper context of praise and thanksgiving!
All Things Bright and Beautiful
By Ashely Bryan, based on hymn text by Cecil F. Alexander
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010
Note: Ashley Bryan was a recipient of the 2009 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, for "substantial and lasting contributions to children's literature." He has also been honored many times with the Coretta Scott King award or honor.
I wouldn't be surprised to see All Things Bright and Beautiful honored by the Caldecott committee.