Paul Fleischman has had a long luxurious career as a children's author. But before he published "Graven Images" back in 1982, he probably could not have predicted how well he'd someday be received by the literary community at large. At that time, he'd only written two books: "The Birthday Tree" and "Half-a-Moon Inn". If you've ever read more than one Paul Fleischman book then you know that he loves to make wildly different kinds of stories. One day he'll make a book of poetry meant to be read aloud by two voices. The next day he's suddenly come out with a book pairing the Trojan War with 9/11. Turn around again and you've found yourself face-to-face with a wholly original picture book about a boy creating his own unique civilization. Blink twice in a row and the picture book is entirely wordless and about the circus, but involving shadows. Reading through "Graven Images" now, you definitely get a hint of great Fleischmanish things to come. With nods to Roald Dahl's adult tales, old fairy tales about boys named Jack, and ghostly visitations, this is one Newbery Honor book that deserves another turn in the public spotlight.
Split into three short stories, each tale in this book involves "graven images" in one way or another. The first story, "The Binnacle Boy", starts when a woman discovers that her son's ship, the one he was sailing away on, has floundered in the harbor. It's crew? All dead and not a clue to be found. Hoisted from the deck is a statue of a sailor called a Binnacle Boy. Only it may know the reason the crew has died, but its mouth doesn't say a word. It's only when a small deaf girl with the ability to read lips discovers the true murderer that the story reaches a shocking but not entirely unfamiliar ending. "Saint Crispin's Follower" is a far cheerier tale of a star-eyed cobbler's apprentice and his hopeless love for a girl in the town. Thinking the weathervane shaped like Saint Crispin will never lead him wrong, our young foolish hero traipses in and out of calamity to find his heart's desire by the end. "The Man of Influence" is the last and most supernatural of these tales. A sculptor of great men is without a patron and nearly starving when a ghost desires that he carve him a statue of its own likeness. The desperate artist agrees, thinking the ghost to have been a great man in its life. It is only after the commission reaches its close that the sculptor realizes the irony in calling anyone with money "great".
I enjoyed the idea of people either reaching some kind of a comeuppance or just desserts through statuary of one sort or another. Really, that's the only thing these three tales have in common. The first book is like (as I mentioned before) a Roald Dahl mystery. You may not know that it's a mystery as you read it, but by the end it's clear who the true villain is. "Saint Crispin's Follower", on the other hand, is a slapdash comedy of errors. Our hero is like those characters named Jack in the old folktales. He's a fool, but he gets what he wants through sheer dumb luck rather than skill or intelligence. "The Man of Influence" is the hardest story amongst these three to pin down. On the one hand, we seem to be dealing with a creepy tale of murder and buried secrets. On the other, there's a moral to the story that Fleischman doesn't force down the audience's throat. That's all well and good, but it makes for a confusing end. Should you be involved in a children's bookclub of some sort, I highly recommend this third story as an interesting read. It'll get the kids debating why the sculptor did such-n-such for hours on end.
With the newly republished edition of this book, the original illustrations by Andrew Glass have been done away with and replaced with those by John Jude Palencar. I am certain that Mr. Palencar is an adept artist in his own right, but it seems a pity to do away with the particularly creepy pictures that originally accompanied this book. Andrew Glass had an odd vision of the kind of story this was. Drawing pictures that would give even fellow creepy artist Stephen Gammell pause, Mr. Glass imbued those pictures with an odd undercurrent of ickyness. This is most apparent with the picture that accompanies the tale "The Man of Influence". For some reason, the ghost of the tale is pictured here as virtually rotting before our eyes. One hopes that Mr. Palencar will include illustrations of equal horror in this newest edition and not water down the book for contemporary audiences.
I've been attempting to seek out children's books in which statues play an important role. That was sole reason for picking up "Graven Images" from my local library. Now that I've perused it, however, I'm happy to report that it far and beyond exceeded my expectations. If you've a kid that wants to read some scary stories but they don't actually want to read anything TOO scary, this is the book to hand them. An excellent predecessor to Fleischman's later work and a read as good as it is timeless.