Friday, March 11, 2011

Owly & Wormy: Friends All Aflutter

Created and illustrated by Andy Runton
$15.99, ages 3-7, 40 pages.

Owly wants butterflies so badly he can barely stand it. But nothing seems to lure them into his garden.

Then one day he meets two plump green bugs that make him forget that having friends with fancy wings was ever important to him.

Well, almost forget -- that is, until the rainy season passes and a couple of leathery pouches in his garden do the "shaky shake."

Owly, the big-eyed owl from Runton's Owly graphic novel series, makes his full-color debut in this super-sweet picture book that shows that it's not what's on the outside that counts in friendship.

As with the Owly comics, the story is told through symbols and expressions, and is virtually wordless, yet it reads as vividly as any word-based picture book thanks to clever pictographs that appear above characters' heads.

Instead of using words in speech bubbles, Rundin puts pictures of whatever Owly or another character is thinking about, whether it's butterflies or a flower, then pairs it with a punctuation mark or a well-known pictorial sign to explain how he feels about it.

The pictures might be followed by a question mark or exclamation mark, compared to something else with an equal sign or unequal sign, connected to something outside the bubble with an arrow or put inside a crossed-out circle to say it is no more.

Facial expressions, especially those of Owly's, then firm up the emotions behind each thought.

Owly's eyes look like huge billiard balls and his eyelids fit them like gloves. When he's happy his eyes open to big white circles or his pupils form slits of laughter, and when he's sad his eyelids slip to half-mast and curve down like frowns.

When readers first meet Owly, his back is to them and though they can't see his face, they know he's perplexed.

He stands behind three potted seedlings that are too young to flower, looking at a flock of monarch butterflies fly away.

On his head sits a peanut-shaped friend, Wormy, who (we soon discover) is his bunk mate and confidante, and shares his every expression.

Above Owly, a speech bubble shows three of the orange and black butterflies and a red arrow pointing toward the distant flock, along with a big, fat question mark. He wonders why the butterflies don't stay and longs for them to return.

For a moment but no more, Owly is chapfallen. In another speech bubble, he pictures the same three butterflies laughing at the absurdity of his flowerless plants, as readers watch Owly's eyelids slip down into mournful ovals.

But Owly is not one to dwell on what he doesn't have and he quickly comes up with a solution: by the next vignette, his eyes are bright, full circles and he's picturing Mrs. Racoon's Nursery adrift in blooming plants.

He knows just what he needs: a plant with nectar. So he carefully selects a variety with orange-red flowers clustered at its tips (which gardeners will instantly recognize as butterfly weed), then plants it in the soil below his and Wormy's tree. 

The next day seems promising but the sky is still; not one butterfly drifts by his flower. And again Owly is disheartened.

Yet just as quickly as before, he snaps out of his doldrums as readers see a bright compact fluorescent light bulb turn on in his speech bubble to signify a plan popping into his head:

They will make welcome signs for the butterflies that surround them in hearts and flowers to suggest just how much they'll like it there.

So, Owly and Wormy set to work painting little wooden signs to put around the new plant, but as they tap the last sign into the ground, they notice the plant is starting to look sick. Every other leaf has a bite taken out of it.

Just then, two happy green bugs pop out of the leaves, their faces beaming hello, an exclamation mark above their speech bubbles adding to their hearty greeting, as they merrily chew up a mouthful of leaf.

At first, Owly and Wormy think the bugs are pests, but when the bugs explain that the flower = their home, and Owly and Wormy see worry in their soggy, sad eyes, they're faces soften.

Owly consults Wormy, forever on his head, about what they should do, and Wormy's once-angry brow splits into two commiserating curves.

Wormy looks down into Owly's eyes and in his speech bubble shows two bugs = smiley face, and Owly instantly agrees, the flower truly does = their home; the bugs must stay.

Soon Owly, Wormy and the two green bugs are the best of pals, and Owly seems to have forgotten all about wanting butterflies. But as one spring day slips into the next, dark clouds begin to crawl across the sky.

April is arriving and with it rain and a stiff wind, and though Owly and Wormy invite the bugs to take shelter in their tree, the bugs' speech bubbles show that their time has run out and they must pack their bags and go.

For friends as fine as these, Owly and Wormy agree that only a royal send-off will do, so they paint a big banner of farewell and make a card with a big red heart, and go to say goodbye.

But when Owly flies down from the tree with Wormy, the bugs are nowhere to be found -- and it hits Owly and Wormy: They've already left.

Tears pool below Owly and Wormy's eyes and as each day passes without their friends, they X out another day on the calendar. Their speech bubbles show them drifting between hope and sadness until one night Owly sits up in bed with another bright fluorescent bulb above his head.

He will paint signs to welcome the bugs back; that way, the bugs will know just how much they're wanted.

That night, instead of butterflies, Owly paints pictures of his bug friends with lots of tiny hearts, and the next morning he and Wormy head off to the flower to tap them into the ground.

But just as they're about to wrap up, Wormy gasps. An exclamation point appears in his speech bubble and sweat squirts off his brow.

He's spotted two strange pouches hanging off the undersides of the plant's leaves.

The two stare at the pouches with brows arched and Owly holds his wing tips to his beak as if to catch his breath. The pouches are moving ("Shaky Shake") and something is squeezing out of the bottoms!

A delight to the last, joyful page, this first full-color tale of Owly and Wormy is sure to be the first of many.

Not only are the graphics adorable, expressive and easy to read, but the characters, especially Owly, model a can-do attitude that's so healthy for readers to see.

Owly never dwells on what he doesn't have; he allows himself a brief moment of sadness, then jumps back into life and tries to solve whatever problem he's faced with.

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