Something’s Not Quite Right. By Guy Billout. Godine, 32 pp., $14.95, paperback. Ages: 4 and up.
By Janice Harayda
Something’s Not Quite Right is a more sophisticated and intellectual French cousin of all those spot-the-difference books that require you to find minor variations in side-by-side pictures. Each page of this oversized picture book asks you to figure out what’s wrong with a painting by Guy Billout, an illustrator whose elegantly spare work has appeared in The New Yorker.
Some of Billout’s surreal images show biological impossibilities or incongruities that 5- or 6-year-olds could spot easily — a zebra with stripes that form a bull’s eye, a pigeon with landing gear for feet, a butterfly perched on a lever that lifts a building off its foundation. Other paintings show visual paradoxes that children might have trouble understanding without adult help, such a snowball apparently fired by a war-memorial cannon (which might have come instead from an unseen hand). And all the pictures have titles that, in some cases, add to their ambiguity: What are we to make of the painting called “Writer’s Block,” which shows a human figure standing behind a railing on top of an overflowing dam? Does the scene represent wish fulfillment? Or perhaps an inability to tap the wellsprings of inspiration just out of reach?
The varied levels of meaning and complexity make Something’s Not Quite Right more challenging than most spot-the-difference books and add to its intergenerational appeal. This is the rare picture book that on a rainy day at the beach might interest not just the young children for whom it is intended but their older brothers and sisters and the grandparents who could identify for both groups some of the famous sites on its pages, including the Flatiron Building in New York and the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris.
Best line/picture: Some of Billout’s images can be read metaphorically. They include a picture of a World War II tank crossing a field of sunflowers without appearing to harm them. You can read the flowers as a metaphor for France or the French spirit uncrushed by the war.
Worst line/picture: The dust jacket of the hardcover edition says that a picture shows “a Boeing 747 about to touch down without landing gear.” If you hadn’t read that, you might imagine that the plane was taking off and had lifted its landing gear.
Published: October 2002 (hardcover), May 2004 (paperback).
Furthermore: Billout was born in France and lives in New York. He has posted some images from Something’s Not Quite Right, unlabeled as such, on www.guybillout.com. He wrote the The Frog Who Wanted to See the Sea (Creative Editions, 2007).