I have long been a fan of wordless books but I have never come across one as exceptional, as clever and so full of possible stories as The Red Book by Barbara Lehman.
The magic of this book begins as soon as you pick it up – without its dust jacket, the book is simply a plain red book. Begin the story and you discover that it is about a plain red book, exactly the same as the one you are holding. You meet a girl on her way to school, who spies a red book sticking out of the snow and picks it up. She opens the book and finds a series of maps showing an island, a beach and finally, a boy.
The boy finds a red book buried in the sand, opens it and sees a series of pictures of the city, including the girl. Using illustrations that no written description will do justice, the boy and girl become friends through the pages of their respective red books. Wanting to meet her new friend, the girl buys a bunch of helium balloons and floats up above the city, accidentally dropping her book along the way. It lands on the wharf below and through its pages readers see the boy on the beach who, in his own volume of the red book, is watching the girl flying away on her balloons. As she flies out of his book’s picture, he becomes sad and looks away from the book. However, the reader of Barbara Lehman’s The Red Book can still see what happens through the book dropped on the wharf. The girl lands safely on the beach and happily the new friends meet.
If you are in any doubt that Lehman is a master storyteller (or illustrator, as the case may be!), the final page will set you straight – it shows the red book, tucked under someone else’s arm as they ride their bike along the wharf. What comes next? It’s up to you.
I suspect I have made The Red Book sound terribly complex. In fact, it’s not. At first glance, Lehman’s illustrations are simple – a restrained colour palette, strong lines and heavy white borders. Look more closely and you see the clever techniques that have been employed, notably series of pictures arranged to give the impression of peering into windows on some pages and a hall-of-mirrors effect on others, as we delve further into the volumes of red books – it’s the-book-inside-the-book-inside-the-book. For example, in one amazing illustration, we see the girl looking out her window with wonder, while her open book reveals the boy, also with a look of wonder on his face, holding his open book showing the picture of the same girl we see looking out of her window – incredibly clever!
I have looked at The Red Book over and over and I’m still finding new things each time I open it. This is a truly brilliant book and one that is now ‘my favourite book to give’. Children (and adults) will understand the nuances of the story differently but younger readers, aged four and up, will recognise that the boy and girl can see each other through the pictures in two similar looking red books, just like the one that they are holding – magic!
The Red Book is available from The Book Depository for $13.77 (including shipping).