People of all ages are fascinated with outer space and the largely unexplored frontier it is, but children are especially curious about the mysteries the universe holds. Two new picture books capture this wonder, and both stories are, in more ways than one, out of this world.
The smart twist at the end of author-illustrator Tom Sullivan’s Out There relies entirely upon his use of silhouette throughout the book. On the first spread, readers see what they assume are human children here on Earth—we see them from behind, shadows pointing up at a starlit sky—wondering if extraterrestrials exist in the universe. We see what we assume is an owl in a nearby tree. We also see the shadows of waving, alien-esque tentacles, but we figure they’re a figment of the children’s imagination; they are, after all, wondering about aliens. Before the big reveal, the children ponder what an alien planet may look like. “It could be filled with the strangest creatures,” Sullivan writes; the creatures pictured on the next page are all from Earth, albeit some of the most bizarre ones that exist (a blobfish, a flapjack octopus).
But at the book’s close, the children’s backs no longer toward us, we see that they themselves are the aliens, complete with green skin. We’ve been on another planet this whole time. What we thought was an owl in the tree were two alien creatures standing atop one another. And those tentacles are, well, actual tentacles! Out There is a book that reminds us of our humanity by revealing our own alienness from another perspective. And it reminds us that our planet—the bizarre, beautiful world we call home—is one worth taking care of.
Move over, Ms. Frizzle. In John Hare’s wordless picture book debut, Field Trip to the Moon, students hop on a lunar bus and take off into the darkness of outer space. Clad in astronaut suits, they land on the moon and follow their teacher on the surface, exploring and learning. One child who carries a sketchbook and crayons is always falling behind the class, and when they stop to do a drawing of Earth from the moon, they fall asleep. After waking just in time to see the school’s lunar bus depart, the dejected child sits and (what else is there to do?) draws some more.
When ashen-faced, one-eyed lunar creatures quite literally pop up out of the moon’s surface, they delight in watching the small human draw. Upon discovering them, the child shares their crayons and paper, and the whole group draws on the surface of a lunar rock nearby. When the bus finally returns, the alien creatures flee, and the happy, relieved teacher hugs the child, but the teacher is quick to scold the student for doodling on the surface of the moon.
Hare’s acrylic illustrations, occasionally divided into vertical panels to accelerate the action, are textured and expressive. He communicates emotion effectively via body language, given that this is a wordless tale and that all the humans characters are concealed in space helmets. It’s not until the last page that we see the protagonist without a helmet, and with medium-length, shaggy brown hair, it could be a boy or girl. This is a field trip that won’t soon be forgotten.
Julie Danielson conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.