Carson Ellis's Du Iz Tak?
Book review by Daniela Chamorro Mantica
If you casually flip through Carson Ellis' picture book, you might be confused or even put off by the apparent gibberish, the disarming faces on the insect characters, and the large swaths of blank space on each two-page spread. Don't let these fool you - Du Iz Tak? will surprise you with its emotion and story.
Two damselflies find a tiny plant sprout, and ask "du iz tak?" We quickly realize this means "what is that?" A ladybug joins them as the plant grows. With the help of a pill bug who lives in a log, they build a fort in the growing plant's branches, and a flower blooms.
A spider enters the page stealthily, on the left-hand side of the two-page spread, and threatens to destroy the fort, but at the last minute a bird swoops in and saves the fort.
Inevitably, winter comes, and they must leave the dying plant behind. But as the book comes to an end, we see many new plants sprout, and another insect asks, "du iz tak?"
The book's plot is simple, and beautiful in that simplicity, an oft-told
story of renewal and the circle of life through seasons. It is told
entirely through image and dialogue, despite there being of space for
The plot probably would've been understandable without the made-up language of the insects. This is the most risky element of the book, and Ellis pulls it off.
As I went through the book, I delighted in "learning" the fictional language and deciphering meaning through context and repetition. If even an adult can enjoy it, then children will definitely do so. It's an exercise in codes, but a charming one.
As for the art, it's beautifully drawn, but that's only part of its success. The "camera" never moves, always showing the exact same space: a log on the left-hand side and the sprout on the right-hand side.
There's a lot of white space above the character and the action, which is rarely filled. This empty space makes the insects feel small and reminds us of where they exist.
It also makes other elements like the plant feel large. The best instance of this is when a bird fills up a whole page. I physically jumped and felt overwhelmed by the bird's appearance, as the insects probably felt, too.
The details in the drawings add to the story's charm. The tiny ants are constantly trying to join the fort and failing. The mushroom next to the log grows as the book goes on. At night, there's a "fiddler on the roof" playing music.
The best example of this, though, is the caterpillar. At the beginning of the book, a caterpillar goes into a cocoon above the pill bug's log. This cocoon is always present, but we forget about it.
When everybody has abandoned the fort, the "fiddler" is alone, playing music, and the cocoon opens. The butterfly flies out in one of the most beautiful moments in the book.
Du Iz Tak? is a gorgeous and subtly masterful book that's delightful to read alone or with children.
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