“Our Fort” by Marie Dorléans

DRAWING OUTDOORS, by Jairo Buitrago; illustrated by Rafael Yockteng; translated by Elisa Amado
OUR FORTRESS, by Marie Dorléans; translated by Alyson Waters

One summer, when I was a single mom raising my second and fourth graders in Brooklyn and without childcare for the next few weeks, my friend Catherine and I rented a farmhouse in upstate New York for a month. She brought her 9 year old twins and we let the kids explore the woods while we worked. We gave them a loud whistle and generous borders—the distant stone wall, the serpentine stream, the neighboring field—and sent them into the wilderness.

Alone in the forest, they let their imaginations run wild, what they actually managed to do was create order. They named their country Mimoss. They built houses, ran businesses, named and mapped landmarks. They held contentious town meetings atop Flat Rock and issued dire warnings of the dangers of the Evil Snakey Forest, which loomed menacingly from all sides. That threat, amplified at dizzying heights, was key to the thrill of the experience, as well as three new picture books in which children let their imaginations run wild in the great outdoors.

In Matt Myers’ Children of the Forest, wild beasts, a dragon and an intruder threaten a boy and his little sister, who profess to be children of the forest raised by wolves. Steeped in wilderness tales, the boy valiantly protects his sister even when they are “on the brink of starvation.” He introduces them to the art of survival as they search for food, fight dangerous animals, and set up camp for the night. There is a comfortable tension between text and images, where what we are told conflicts with what we see. Older children will enjoy the joke: the beasts are the house cat and dog, the dragon is a leafy tree with branch teeth and the intruder is the children’s mother.

But her mother’s visit breaks the spell on the girl, who, with a cry of “Mama!”, disregards the comfort and safety of home. Left alone in the deepening twilight, the boy gives in to his vivid imagination and runs back to the house, where we see the children tucked up in their bunk beds. Myer’s soft, nostalgic pencil and watercolor drawings in muted greens and mauves contain details intended for grown-ups (dozing dad reading Thoreau), but there’s also plenty for children to explore as they plan their own backyard adventures.

“Drawing Outdoors” by Jairo Buitrago, illustrated by Rafael Yockteng, is a somewhat confusing story that begins in a school between two mountains “in the middle of nowhere” when various students of different ages arrive from all directions on foot and a dog pees on one Bush. We learn that the school “has almost nothing. A chalkboard, a couple of chairs.” But it has a playful teacher who takes the kids outside to explore the landscape, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the dinosaurs they studied. The children draw what they see. A brontosaurus follows the curve of a hill, a stegosaurus lurks behind boulders.

It’s an imaginative blend of art, science and nature, save for the slightly confusing detail of a student holding a tablet to photograph the scene. What are we to make of this? The camera doesn’t lie: we clearly see the dinosaurs on its screen. And what to make of the fact that, despite repeated mentions of the school’s lack of resources, the kids are armed with easels, canvases, binoculars and that anomalous tablet? Maybe it’s about imagination transcending technology, creativity transcending material reality, or maybe it’s the illustrator’s nod to the digital medium in which the drawings for this book were created – drawings of inviting landscapes and curious children, rendered in a striking color palette, with just the right amount of detail.

There’s a lot to like about this tale (also available in Spanish) of an extraordinary school day, especially when the wind picks up, the kids crouch and a Tyrannosaurus Rex swoops through the trees. The brave younger children stay and draw; Two terrified older kids race back to school, giving their budding romance a chance to blossom.

While Children of the Forest plays with words that tell us one thing and images that tell us otherwise, and Drawing Outdoors uses simple words to describe extraordinary sights, Our Fort by Marie Dorléans (winner the New York Times/New York Public Library Best Illustrated Award for “The Night Walk”) could be read without words. The exquisite illustrations, reminiscent of Japanese woodcuts in composition and line, tell the story of three friends who revisit a fortress they built in the forest across a meadow.

In the opening page we see the children tying their shoelaces and buckle their sandals and through the open door we see the dirt road they are about to take. This is a spectacular bookmaker. We turn the page and find her a little further down that road, leaving a wistful younger sister sitting on the fence. The only hint of an adult is the shadow of a neighbor hanging a sheet on a clothesline, and we know we’re in for an adventure.

Everything about the drawings draws us into the book: the pencil lines of rippling grass as the children take a shortcut through a field; the tangled paths they leave behind; the clouds looming over these now small-looking (but distinct) children as they walk up a hill. The drama comes with a storm. Strong winds lift the children off their feet, and one has the feeling that they might enjoy their fear. As the storm subsides and the blue skies return, we can almost smell the damp field, and we can’t help but share the children’s relief when they find their fortress still standing.

It’s a simple story. Still, I can imagine “Our Fort” having a profound impact on a child – a child who could one day go into the woods with friends and spend weeks of a happy summer building a fort and keeping order while it’s exciting all the time to suddenly see storms, wild winds and evil snake forests.

Sophie Blackall is a two-time Caldecott Medal winner. Her next picture book “Farmhouse” will be published in September.

CHILDREN OF THE FOREST, by Matt Myers | 40 p. | Neal Porter/Vacation Home | $18.99 | Ages 2 to 5
DRAWING OUTDOORS, by Jairo Buitrago; illustrated by Rafael Yockteng; translated by Elisa Amado | 36 p. | Aldana Libros/Greystone Children | $18.95 | Ages 5 to 9
OUR FORTRESS, by Marie Dorléans; Translated by Alyson Waters | 48 p. | The New York Review Children’s Collection | $19.95 | Ages 4 to 8

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