A friend of mine from university who was afraid of heights had a disconcerting habit of screaming, "Put me down!!!
" at the top of her lungs if she was watching a film and was confronted with a scene shot from a high perspective. The treacherous heights of Bill Slavin's imagination in The Stone Lion
put this book in the "scream category".
Although he has illustrated more than twenty books for children in the past six years, The Stone Lion marks Slavin's debut as an author. It also marks a shift from earlier styles toward a more moody, translucent wash of watercolours. Although I usually prefer vibrant, vivid illustrations, this new style better evokes a dusky, fairy-tale sense of place. The Stone Lion is a story of dreams, and in fact had its beginning in an image of the stone lion just before the author fell asleep. Set in mediaeval Europe, this story chronicles the journey of a young boy, his dying grandmother, and a stone lion who comes to life.
Slavin has an unusual knack for rendering perspective in a frighteningly convincing way, luring his young (and not so young) readers into feeling that they are active participants in his story. Mischievously lifting us up to sit behind the boy astride the stone lion, he leaves us to hang on tight, hold our collective breath, and peer over the boy's shoulder as we fly far above the countryside.
Slavin "sees" a story visually and this flows through the veins of his written narrative as well. Inextricably weaving illustration and narrative together, he draws the reader deeper into an ethereal, yet believable world of fairy-tale.
At the moment when the stone lion comes to life and escapes from his cathedral perch with the help of the boy, Slavin writes:
"The stone creaked and groaned, and little bits of mortar broke from the tower and tumbled down into the darkness below. The boy tightened his grip on the lion's mane and shifted his weight forward. Suddenly, there was a great crack, and the lion lurched, breaking loose and plunging boy and lion down end over end toward the cathedral square. The ground came rushing toward them, and the boy squeezed his eyes shut against what seemed to be certain death."
The textures of the illustration and narrative blend together so we hear the grinding and shifting of the stone, and the wind rushing in our ears as the lion and the boy topple toward the ground. And, of course, given Slavin's knack for dragging us along with him, we too are falling to the ground, wondering if we are going to live through to the next page. l
Julie Bergweff is at the beginning of a career that balances freelance editing with her own writing. A stone lion would not feel out of place in her household with its resident zoo.