Thursday 3 November 2011

'I will return'

A Sky Full Of Kindness
by Rob Ryan

There's a good chance you may have seen Rob Ryan's work already. Greetings cards, posters, mugs, cushions, book covers, umbrellas, bags, and even vases and crockery have all been emblazoned with his distinctive paper-cut designs in gift ranges at stores like Liberty and Heals. He even has his own shop on London's Columbia Road where his work can be seen in many forms. There's no substitute for seeing one of his extraordinarily intricate paper-cuts in the flesh, even the mass-produced card I bought for my recent anniversary is a tactile beauty and the detail of some of his larger works is truly staggering.

He has also written, or created, one previous book, This Is For You, which concerned one man's search for a soulmate. His latest is described by Helena Bonham Carter on the back cover as 'a bedtime story for every age' and follows the fortunes of two birds who have a baby. The mother has an important seeming dream and soon finds herself undertaking an epic journey to discover its meaning. That's all you really need to know plot-wise; this fable or fairytale-like story uses the mother's journey to explore themes of friendship, discovery, freedom, release, reliance and the ways in which we need the help of others.

Ryan's artwork really is astonishing, it's hard not to turn each successive page and ask 'How does he do that?' Some pages have a decent bit of background colour to them and so you can feel the relative solidity of the page from which they were cut but others are almost impossibly fragile, it's hard to see  how the lines of text, or twigs that make up a nest, the flocks of birds or clouds in the sky manage to remain connected to the rest of the picture so that the paper remains unbroken. The wonder of that really does sustain for the book's 64 pages. What I might question is the quality of the writing itself. It's hard not to think of the wisdom of greeting's cards when reading certain passages in this book, the vaguely comforting feeling that comes from vague and comforting phrases, and it makes the intricacy of the labour all the more extraordinary when you find that all the effort to cut out those words has been in the service of words that could possibly be improved on. This is similar to the effect of Brian Selznick's recent book Wonder Struck, whose beautiful pencil drawings were let down by some truly pedestrian prose. Ryan's book is way better than that, I'm having a relatively minor quibble, but it does just highlight that it isn't enough for a book to look beautiful and have its heart in the right place, I still want the quality of the writing itself to be as high as the craftsmanship that created it. That said, I can easily imagine plenty of parents getting as much pleasure from reading this book as their children will get from both hearing and seeing it.


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