A Picture Walk with Marla Frazee & The Farmer Trilogy

Have you ever crossed a stream by hopping from rock to rock?
Have you ever taken a secret path all by yourself? 
Have you ever sat quietly in a tree to just look carefully at everything?

This is how Marla Frazee describes memories of what it felt like to read pictures when she was a kid in  A Picture Walk, her magnificent three-panel comic that appeared in the New York Times Book Review on April 18, 2021. A Picture Walk shows Frazee's thoughtful path to becoming a children's book author and illustrator, simultaneously giving readers a taste of the insight, exuberance and immersive experience of reading one of Frazee's picture books - especially since characters from her books show up.

I first discovered Frazee's books shortly after I became a mother and a children's bookseller and felt an immediate, deep love for her work. Seven Silly Eaters, written by Mary Ann Hoberman (1997), Everywhere Babies (2000), written by Susan Meyer and Harriet, You'll Drive Me Wild (2001), written by Mem Fox were the first of her books I read and, as a new mother, I felt seen when I pored over the illustrations in these books with my daughter, and later my sons. While I read these books, and all of Frazee's books, regularly during my story time duties as a bookseller, I will always remember these books (and Santa Claus, the World's Number One Toy Expert and A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever) as my family's books. Remembering reading these books also means memories of having one (or more) of my three children in my lap as we read. Frazee captures the frazzled chaos of parenting small children with an intimacy and humanity that assures you you WILL make it through the day - and the next one and the next. She brings the same knowing to every child she illustrates, no matter who the author of the words to the story she is telling visually. Together, the parents and children Frazee puts on the page, whatever form their family takes, emanate love and joy, even if there are a few dark, anxious, difficult moments on the way to the celebration, which could be something as quiet as a hug between mother and child or a boisterous birthday party. And, Frazee is the first illustrator (to my knowledge) to include LGBTQ+ parents in a picture book (that was not specifically about LGBTQ+ families). It was so amazing, in 2000, to turn the pages of Everywhere Babies and see exhausted moms, catching a few winks but still rocking the cradle next to their bed and two men, arms around each other, walking down a busy street. Frazee's illustrations for this book (and all her books) are also racially diverse, far ahead of the inclusion and representation curve.

Having Frazee's books as an integral part to my children's lives, and their experiences picture walking, made reading her comic even more special. Getting to see inside Frazee's head, see her influences and experiences that are the foundations of her creativity affirmed what I felt when I first read her books more than twenty years ago - this is an author/illustrator who is empathetic and emotionally intelligent and can communicate that in a language that both kids and adults can understand and ultimately feel uplifted by.
The Farmer and the Clown
The Farmer and the Monkey
The Farmer and the Circus
Review Copies from Beach Lane Books

As a parent, children's bookseller and librarian, reading picture books out loud to an audience brings me almost absolute joy. I love being the conduit through which the wonderful stories of authors and illustrators are shared with others. While I read picture books to myself, there is nothing like reading the communal experience of reading out loud and seeing your audience react and interact with the story. As someone with a deep appreciation for picture book illustrations, reading a wordless picture book is a truly marvelous experience - like the author/illustrator has invited the reader to join in on the storytelling. When I started working as a children's bookseller in 1995 (and David Wiesner's stunning, wordless picture books were winning Caldecott after Caldecott) it never occurred to me that reading a wordless picture book to an audience could be challenging. In fact, in 2011 I wrote a "how to" piece for my blog, How to Read a Wordless Book Out Loud. It is such a gift to be able read The Farmer and the Clown, The Farmer and the Monkey and The Farmer and the Circus consecutively, especially since they were published over the span of seven years. My only sadness is that, having all three books in my hands today, the pandemic has meant I do not have an audience to read them with. Somehow, this feels a bit appropriate, as Frazee imbues her books with joy and sadness, togetherness and solitude. As she writes in a brief bio, "All these feelings—both good and bad—end up in the books that I write and illustrate, because it is through writing and illustrating that I try to make sense of this big, complicated world." 

With the Farmer Trilogy, Frazee makes sense of the world by making a smaller world - a family - over the course of three books. A lone farmer tends to a barren land (with a bit of a scowl on his face) in the opening pages of The Farmer and the Clown. When a train passes in the distance, ejecting a passenger as the caboose jostles over the tracks, the farmer's world expands. Taking the clown child by the hand, the farmer does his best to care for him, bathing and feeding him. Putting the child to bed (in the only bed) the farmer sits nearby, watching him sleep. As the sun rises, it's clear that the farmer has gained a deeper understanding and even connection to this new presence in his world. The farmer and the child are now a pair. The farmer shows the child how to work the farm, and the child shows the farmer how to juggle eggs. The day's work done, the pair head out to a lone tree for a picnic. But, before they can even open the basket, the sound of a train signals an end to their time together. The child is returned to his circus family, but not before and exchange of hugs, kisses and hats as he and the farmer say goodbye. 

The final page of The Farmer and the Clown sets up the next book as readers see the farmer, pointy, red clown hat on his head, returning to his farm - a monkey silently following. Picking up where the first book ended, The Farmer and the Monkey finds the farmer heading home, the unenjoyed picnic in his hands. Sitting down, the farmer places the child's clown hat on the chair across from him, clearly at a loss. Soon enough, the monkey makes himself known and is invited into the farmer's house. This new guest proves very different from the first, as Frazee's illustrations show a cyclone of chaos sweeping across the pages. Sitting on the clown's hat, the monkey is banished to the outdoors. A night in the snow changes the attitudes of both the monkey and the farmer, and the pair spend a harmonious day together that ends with a bedtime story and a picnic basket bed for the monkey. The morning brings a fresh burst of energy and more chaos, but also more tolerance on the part of the farmer, until the train in the distance is heard once more. The farmer sends the monkey off with the picnic basket. Singing and playing the banjo for his animals, the farmer does not seem as lonely as before.

The Farmer and the Circus expands the farmer's world once more as the circus returns. Venturing out to see the show, the farmer finds he has had a great influence on the child and the monkey, both of whom can be seen play-farming rather than performing. Excited to see the farmer again, they share their world with him, including a clown mother who, as she dances with the farmer, loses her face paint. Together, the farmer, the child, the monkey and the woman share and get to know each other, making connections and memories. It is no surprise when the final pages show the quartet saying their goodbyes to the circus and making their way to the farmer's house. The last page shows all four, under a now fruit-filled tree, enjoying the picnic that was cut short in the first book.

The world Frazee creates in the FarmeTrilogis sparse, focusing on the characters and their experiences together and apart. The farmer's land is an arid expanse of dull winter browns that flows into his house where the red and white checkered table cloth (that does double duty as a blanket for a picnic and for a bed) is the only color outside of the clown's suit and the farmer's long johns. This works to reinforce the connections made between the characters as well as the differences between the worlds they come from, the solitary brown farm and farmhouse standing opposite the colorful circus train and family of clowns that tumble out of it. This makes the merging of the two worlds even more exciting by the time you reach The Farmer and the Circus, where the farmer is wearing the red clown hat and the child is wearing the farmer's black hat (and overalls). The farmhouse that the new family returns to is markedly different from the one first seen in The Farmer and the Clown. The horizon, once a muddy yellow to match the brown fields, glows pink. Grass and delicate pink flowers grow across the fields and the tree is filled with fruit. Making sense of the world, the world of Frazee's farmer and clown, over the arc of the three books, readers see the characters opening themselves to new people and new experiences, sharing what is important to them with each other and trying new things. Readers also see the joy that comes through connection with others, through being together, and they see how the farmer's world changes as it grows. Yes, there are parts of it that are messy and frantic and difficult but there are also parts that are exciting and interesting and cozy.

I hope that you will put the world that exists in these three wordless books into the hands of children you know and sit back and listen to them read because, as Marla Frazee says, "children are picture reading experts." 

My family's favorite books illustrated by 
& written and illustrated by Marla Frazee

Written & illustrated by Marla Frazee!

Illustrated by Marla Frazee

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