Before we start, I think you need to know two things.
1. I think I’m a little bit in love with what Nosy Crow do with their picture books.
2. I am very much a fan of what Elys Dolan does. I loved Weasels and when I saw Nuts In Space, I shrieked and leapt across the library with joy.
I had high hopes for Nuts In Space, and it delivered. It delivered best, I think, at 4.30pm this afternoon, when I was having another look at Nuts In Space and figuring out what I wanted to say about it because it was at this point that I saw the little detail on the ship in the bottom right hand corner of the title spread. (fig 1).
And when I saw that Nosy Crow number plate (space plate?), I thought – well, I’m in love.
I mean, seriously, how can you not love that? It’s a small detail and one that could almost pass you by but it’s one that’s rather huge in its own way. It’s a detail that speaks of care, and of (and I know I’m repetitive at this point), of detail, of seeing the small little moments in the book that add up to the impact of the whole. When you take care of the little things, when you have a book which revels in the little things, and when these little things are so freaking good, you have a book which is full of a sort of inevitable awesomeness.
And the small details, the cumulative hilarity and joy of these small details, is something that Dolan excels at.
Nuts In Space is riotous. It is silly, and thrilling and funny and snortingly lovely. It’s a little bolder than Weasels, maybe, in how Dolan plays with layout and frame but that all sparks of an increasing confidence which is a joy to witness.
The story itself is simple (ish). A ‘fearless crew of furry animals have finally found the Lost Nuts of Legend! Now all they have to do is bring them home. What could possibly go wrong?’ It’s introduced in one glorious (and somewhat iconic) frame of floating text (fig 2 – hideous photo, apologies!), and then spectacularly undercut by the little aliens in the bottom corner who comment: “Oh look, floating words” to which the other replies, “That’s different.”
See what I mean about those little details? There’s a thousand moments on every page that Dolan creates, and part of the joy of her work is hunting them out. You can quite often have several different stories going on in the same page; the main plot, sub plot a, sub plot b, and so on. This is big, generous writing and drawing. It’s giving the reader everything you’ve got and being confident in their ability to meet you head on. It’s such an act of empowerment for a reader to be able to explore and poke around a page and find yet more story as a reward for that interaction with the text. God I love picture books. I really really love what they do.
So as we continue, Dolan’s art becomes increasingly glorious. We have a mixed cast of woodland creatures including an owl, a somewhat chicken obsessed fox, a somewhat nut obsessed squirrel (fig 3), and many many more. As the crew struggle to find their way home (the Star Nav is unfortunately bust), they end up asking directions from several different sources – and some of them are less than helpful.
We have an encounter with the Nut-Free planet (fig 4), where the aliens all react in panic with the arrival of the nuts. It’s a massive spread and again, it’s the little details which make it. We have the aliens, but we also have a beaver trying to snack on one of them, the fox chasing the rabbit, the badger trying out his ray gun, the duck offering help, whilst in the background, the Captain tries to find out directions home: “Mr Small Green Man, sir! Do you and your dramatic friends know The Way Home?” See those little, careful capitalisations? Nothing in a picture book is by chance, and those little capitalisations are glorious. We’re subtly reinforcing to the reader the overarching motif of the story and also teaching them about how to address aliens when you’re not quite sure of their names. Like I said, I love picture books. They don’t just teach you reading skills, narrative construction, visual literacy (etc, etc), they teach you the important things in life as well, they really do.
The final piece I want to highlight to you in this lovely, lovely book is the spread in fig 5. (Unfortunately I couldn’t quite manage to photograph it all effectively, so had to crop a little at the side). It’s a spread that comes quite close to the end, and it’s perhaps one of the most complicated of them all. It’s also one of the ones that, I think, is perhaps one of the most powerful. See how Dolan’s directing the reader so well through it? We start in the top left, run along the top to the right, where we are directed to the second frame (see her use of framing and structure here? Clever, smart stuff) where we read right to left, and then finally down to the bottom frame which we read left to right and have signposted for us at the end of it: “Home / This Way”. This story doesn’t let you go. It’s willing you to read it, to follow the twists and turns, and in every moment of the story, you are being helped along. It wants you here. It wants you to be part of this vivid, wild narrative.
Like I said, I’m a little bit in love with Dolan and Nosy Crow.
You can view previous picture book in depth pieces here.