Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Thursday, May 28, 2020

Thursday, May 28, 2020: Kids' Maximum Shelf: The Barnabus Project

Tundra Books: The Barnabus Project by Terry Fan, Eric Fan, and Devin Fan

Tundra Books: The Barnabus Project by Terry Fan, Eric Fan, and Devin Fan

Tundra Books: The Barnabus Project by Terry Fan, Eric Fan, and Devin Fan

Tundra Books: The Barnabus Project by Terry Fan, Eric Fan, and Devin Fan

The Barnabus Project

by Terry Fan, Eric Fan, Devin Fan

According to half-mouse/half-elephant Barnabus, "Nothing is impossible." In this spectacularly illustrated and remarkably touching picture book by the Fan Brothers (plus one), Barnabus displays the importance of following your dreams no matter what--even when the world sees you as a "Failed Project."

Barnabus and his compatriots--including Bumble Bear, the Bottle Mogs, Lite-Up Lois, Quirt and several others--have been genetically engineered to be perfect pets. Sadly, none of them has made the cut. Barnabus, for one, isn't fluffy enough and his eyes are too small. Sinister-looking engineers known as the Green Rubber Suits keep the creatures in jars ominously stamped FAIL in a lab hidden far below the Perfect Pets Shop. Life isn't too bad in the lab, but Barnabus does sometimes wonder "about the world outside of his little bell jar." His cockroach friend Pip tells the would-be pets what it's like out there, waxing poetic about a "sparkling silver lake, green trees, and mountains that reach... all the way to the sky, lit with their own stars" (i.e., urban high-rises). But it's not until Barnabus learns what happens to failed projects that he decides to take action, and what follows is an adventure to rival all picture-book adventures.

Terry Fan, Eric Fan and Devin Fan bring to light (literally and explosively, as readers will see) an empowering story about the value of finding one's people and working together--appropriately enough, as they are three Canadian brothers who collaborated digitally and on paper to create The Barnabus Project. Terry Fan and Eric Fan, known professionally as the Fan Brothers, have worked together on titles such as The Night Gardener, Ocean Meets Sky (a 2019 Zena Sutherland Award for Children's Literature and shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal), The Antlered Ship (by Dashka Slater) and The Darkest Dark (by astronaut Chris Hadfield). This is their first picture book collaboration with brother Devin.

Their artwork, rendered in graphite and colored digitally, seems animation-ready, its energetic quality giving the distinct impression of motion. In fact, the Fans' quirky characters wouldn't be out of place in a Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbor Totoro) film. Visual treats are in store on every page for keen-eyed readers, the youngest of whom may enjoy looking for Pip on nearly every spread or seeing how the smaller or less ambulant critters hitch rides with others (like spotted, raspberry-colored Mushroom Sloth, who hangs from a glass thermometer carried by the long-legged Stick One and Stick Two). Even more careful perusal will reveal subtly changing details in recurring scenes, such as the position shifts among the pedestrians on the street, a black cat moving from doorway to sidewalk, and pigeons perched on the rooftop on one spread having taken off to flutter over the building on the next. Certain elaborate settings--the "perfectly ordinary street" of the pet shop, the cross-section of the maze-like underground tunnels, the shelves of bell jars and imperfect pets--are depicted with absorbing detail, inviting repeated returns for new surprises. Adults, too, have much to be entertained by, such as hilariously quotidian details like a man reading a newspaper in what must be the underground staff room (vending machine, water cooler and lockers nearby) that is at the center of the massive lab tunnels. The Fan brothers seem to enjoy taking a sly jab at a world where genetically modified products have become the norm: brilliantly hued and polka-dotted "perfect" pets mingle among more traditional cats and dogs on the street.

Although the book is packed with action and poignance and not a word or picture is wasted, three moments stand out as watersheds. One is when Barnabus blasts apart his jar with a "BWAAHHH!!" from his tiny trunk, setting the failed pets' escape plan in motion. Another is when the gang discovers, on the one vertically oriented page of the book, a monstrously large tank with a single eye peering out of a porthole. The escaping pets, petrified, want to run. But Barnabus stops them. "It's a Failed Project," he says. "Just like us." The next pages are evocative: the group works to free the creature within, led by the sweetly fanged purple octopus-like Wally the Ripple, who wraps his eight legs around the wheel that opens the tank. Meanwhile, Green Rubber Suits approach threateningly from a tunnel. The third watershed is when Barnabus, racing out of the pet shop, pauses to look at an orderly row of the "FULLY TRAINED!" perfect pets in all their fluffy, big-eyed--and packaged--glory. "It was almost like looking in a mirror, except Barnaby's eyes were bigger, and his fur was like cotton candy. He was perfect." But Barnabus continues on to join his friends: "He might not be perfect... But he was free!" By working together to escape the tyranny of perfection, Barnabus discovers the most important thing: He likes himself--and his friends--just the way they are. --Emilie Coulter

Tundra Books, $18.99, hardcover, 72p., ages 5-9, 9780735263260, September 1, 2020

Tundra Books: The Barnabus Project by Terry Fan, Eric Fan, and Devin Fan

The Fan Brothers Plus One: Collaborative Mischief

The Fan Brothers: (l.-r.) Eric, Terry and Devin
(photo: Michelle Quance)

When Toronto-based author/illustrators Terry and Eric Fan, aka the Fan Brothers (The Night Gardener), began thinking about their next book project, they remembered a little drawing their brother Devin had done, 25 or so years earlier, of a genetically engineered half mouse/half elephant. They went looking for the original drawing, and Eric finally found Barnabus peeking up at him from the bottom of a large pasta pot at the back of his storage locker. We checked in with the brothers to hear about their first fantastic and fantastical collaboration as a threesome: The Barnabus Project (Tundra, September 1, 2020).

What special je ne sais quoi does each of you bring to the creative process? A passion, a leaning, an obsession...?

Terry: Devin brings a fresh perspective. I think Eric and I have fallen into a more comfortable rhythm together, so getting a third voice into the mix was definitely an asset, to shake things up a little.

Eric: I guess I am more "big picture" sometimes, while Terry is more exacting and good at drilling down into the details. Devin is also good at seeing a project as a whole, with the added perspective of having kids of his own. I think having kids gives you a keener insight into what they like, and how their worldview skews slightly differently from adults. He used them when we were working on The Barnabus Project as a litmus test for some of our decisions and ideas.

Devin: We're all really different. Eric has a special talent for seeing something in a completely new way. I'll think something is already great, but he's never satisfied and keeps looking and looking at it until something new and often better rises to the surface. Terry has a way of creating visual richness out of an idea and finding depth and texture in seemingly simple images. As for me--even more than having kids, I think I'm still a kid myself, so when I know kids are going to love something, I won't stop fighting for it.

For The Barnabus Project, did you plan how to work together or let it flow organically?

Eric: I think it flowed pretty organically. We all contributed ideas and designs--both story ideas and conceptual ideas around the various characters in the book.

Devin: We didn't plan, but being brothers and having worked together on so many different projects in the past, we didn't really have to. One great thing we all share is the ability to be honest about what's working and what's not, regardless of who did it. I think that is absolutely key for a successful collaboration.

You obviously work well together and the results clearly show that you are simpatico. Were you close as children?

Eric: Terry and I are only a year and a half apart in age, so we were very close as children--almost like twins. Devin is seven years younger and was closer in age to our sister, so they formed a kind of second unit together.

Devin: I always think of us as all being close as kids. I was the youngest and so led the usual life of being picked on and made fun of by older brothers. The exception was annual water balloon fights, when for some reason Terry was always my partner against Eric and a neighbor, which was really cool. Terry and I made the most epic forts with shelves for supplies and a roof made from those plastic orange toboggans. That was the best.

What other kinds of creations (or mischief) did you collaborate on as kids?

Eric: My first collaboration with Terry, somewhat fittingly, was a picture book we wrote and illustrated together in crayon. It was called Many Years Ago and was about dinosaurs. Our mom helped us write out the text and finally stapled it all together for us. She was our first editor and art director, you could say.

Devin: We made some legendary stop-motion films. I loved those so much. We made a lot of failed homemade rocket projects involving hours of scraping the gunpowder off of sparklers. Also, if anyone remembers those Mego action figures, we would make "fireproof" suits for them and then test them on the barbecue. That was pretty great. [Kids, don't try this at home!]

You cram the "perfectly ordinary" street where Perfect Pets is located with fabulous details. Is it reminiscent of any streets you have known?

Eric: Architecturally, it's somewhat reminiscent of one of the neighborhoods where we grew up in Toronto, Leslieville. You see a lot of those same low, midcentury buildings with retail storefronts. We added in a few of our favorite haunts, places that have long since closed: Willow Fish and Chips and John's Italian Cafe (a place I frequented when I was in art college).

Terry: We also populated the street with some of our friends and family, which is always fun.

Barnabus and his friends "always [stick] together" in spite of obstacles. How important is it to the three of you to put across a message to your readers?

Eric: For me it's a fundamental theme of the book: that no matter how different or "imperfect" you are, there are others out there like you. Growing up, I always felt like a bit of a misfit and was bullied throughout high school. Finding other artists and creatives in art college showed me that I wasn't alone.

Terry: There is definitely strength in solidarity and the mutual support of friends. Life will always throw up obstacles and those can be tough to face alone.

Devin: To me the pivotal point is when Barnabus won't leave Project X behind. In addition to sticking together, he sees how important it is to have compassion and to see your own struggle in others.

What's next for you, together and apart?

Eric: Terry and I have two upcoming projects--both picture books we wrote and are illustrating. I also have a wordless text I recently finished that I'm hoping will be illustrated by another illustrator. I've always been curious about being on the other side of that equation, where you cede creative control to someone else.

Terry: Depending on the success of The Barnabus Project, we'd love to do a follow-up to that book as well.

Devin: I have all kinds of ideas spinning in my head about the follow-up to The Barnabus Project, which are suitably top-secret. --Emilie Coulter

Powered by: Xtenit