WHAT IT IS reviewed by The Clevland Plain Dealer

Vibrant picture books entertain the adult child

Plain Dealer Reporter    |    Karen Sandstorm    |    May 11, 2008

Those idea was it to take the pictures away from all the grownup books?

Certainly no one who foresaw how visual our world would become by way of television and then computers. Nor anyone who understood the rich conversations between text and illustrations on the page.

But the exponential growth of the so-called graphic novel (a troublesome term, as plenty aren't novels at all) speaks to the increasing desire among some grownups to be bewitched by the artist's pen even as they're whisked away by suspense, revelation and other qualities of storytelling.

Always on the hunt for the beautifully illustrated book that also has something to say, I found a quartet recently that offer satisfaction at different levels. The most mesmerizing is the brand new What It is (Drawn & Quarterly, 208 pp., $24.95), in which artist and essayist Lynda Barry takes a unique approach to a time-worn form: the creativity guide.

These books usually grant permission for the reader to reconnect with his or her freer, more creative inner child, and lash back at the critics who trample artistic hearts. Thus did Julie Cameron give writers "The Artist's Way." More recently, artist Danny Gregory did it with pen-and-ink drawings in his guide, "Creative License."

Barry enables her readers, too, in a beautifully produced hardback highly illustrated with collage and combinations of cartoons and text on what appears to be yellow legal paper. She posits ideas and questions such as, "To follow a wandering mind means having to get lost. Can you stand being lost?"

In drawings, cut-and-pasted text from old books and letters, and clipped images from unspecified sources, Barry tells her own story of creativity, then leads readers to the inevitable exercises to help them jump-start their own ideas.

It's one thing to crack the creativity pinata and another to organize the goodies into a readable book or a piece of art that someone else wants to consume -- thus the high ratio of people who, say, have an idea for a novel versus the number that actually write one.

"What It Is" is all about whomping the pinata and not about how to turn those newly minted thoughts into poems or essays. I didn't care. Barry's intricate pages, with their jumble of birds and monsters, sea creatures and flowers, kept me entranced.

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