Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Counting Down to Earth Day: Day 6

The Cloud Spinner
By Michael Catchpool
Illustrated by Alison Jay
$16.99, ages 4-8, 32 pages

A greedy king has every cloud drawn from the sky and spun into clothes, not realizing that without those clouds, the rain won't come.

In this imaginative picture book, author Michael Catchpool raises issues of over farming, while artist Alison Jay charms us with nature's beauty.

When a pompous king learns of a boy's gift of spinning clouds into thread, he orders him to pull enough clouds to weave a fancy wardrobe for him and his family.

The boy, who's never taken more than he needs from the clouds, warns the king that it isn't wise to make so many clothes from clouds.

"Enough is enough and not one stitch more," as his mother has taught him, for without clouds, rivers won't fill, trees will die of thirst and hills will turn brown.

But the king cannot see beyond his immediate pleasure to the damage this could cause and demands that the boy take to his spinning wheel without delay.

So with a whir of the wheel, the boy begins to funnel down cloud after cloud: some the color of a sunrise, others white as snow or dyed crimson by the setting sun.

He pulls each like cotton candy and twists it around the wheel into the softest thread. Then with a clickety-clack of his loom, he weaves it into a river of cloth that ripples down to the bottom of the hill.

First the boy makes the king a long scarf as "soft as a mouse's touch" and as "warm as roasted chestnuts," then he weaves him a lavish cloak, and the queen and their daughter, the Princess, "dresses galore."

But the sky cannot make clouds fast enough to keep up with the king's demands and one day, the sky has nothing left to give the spinner.

As the clouds disappear, the sun looks sidelong at the boy with sad eyes, and the green, rolling hills all around bake to a dusty brown and look cautiously up at the empty sky.

A line of sheep curves downward on one hill like a frown, as two lollipop trees become eyes and a little black bird in each become the pupils, aimed worriedly up at the sky.

Of course no rain can fall without clouds and so all the kingdom suffers.

The villagers, who've had to watch their king squander their water, scramble up to his hilltop castle to plead with him to undo the damage, and save their animals and crops.

But the king, still absorbed in his extravagances, is indignant and waves them away, bellowing, "There's nothing I can do!"

Only he doesn't speak for his quiet little Princess. She's never looked happy in those lavish gowns, knowing they came at a price. So that night she sets off to fix her father's mistake.

Without anyone noticing, she changes out of her cloud-woven clothes into a simple dress, then rolls up all of the garments the boy made into a giant bail and slips out of the castle.

The bail is too big for her little arms to get around, yet she lugs it none-the-less up to the boy's hut, barely able to see in front of her.

Then she and the boy climb to the top of a high hill and pinch cloud after cloud off the roll, until every thread is released and everything is as it was.

But will the king ever appreciate the wonder of those clouds, now that they are back? Will he understand their fragility?

Michael Catchpool's writing is poetic and enchanting, while Alison Jay's art seems spun from magic itself. Her clouds look like giant animal crackers, and her soft, luminous landscapes are aged in a crackle finish and appear back lit by sunshine.

This is a book that tackles a grim subject, the depletion of the natural world, without ever feeling hopeless, thanks to the whimsical nature of Alison's art and Michael Catchpool's gentle, forgiving story.

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