By Dan Santat, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, $17.99, ages 4-8
For a book about boredom, Caldecott-winner Dan Santat’s newest, “Are We There Yet?” is surprisingly inventive and eventful. Time travel, prehistoric creatures, and peril at sea are just a few of the dramatic elements filling the pages. But before all the theatrics, the story begins with an ordinary road trip.
Riding in a small orange car, a boy and his parents head for Grandma’s house to celebrate her birthday: “The car trip to visit Grandma is always exciting! But after the first hour, it can feel like an eternity.”
Early on the boy in the back seat begins to wilt: “Are we there yet?” he asks for the first time as his parents’ faces crinkle with annoyance. The book’s first scenes are divided into windowed sections that look like film frames. The segments give the feeling that time is inching along. By frame five, the boy is slumped and cranky, toys scattered at his feet.
Suddenly Santat flips the script and the book. The words on the next spread shoot around the outside edges of the pages: “But what happens when your brain . . . becomes . . . TOO . . . bored?” In order to follow the text and read the sections that follow readers must first flip the book upside down, then turn the pages backward. Flipping the pages back to front gives readers a deliciously trippy sensation that mimics the mind-bending experiences of the boy and his parents as they start slipping through time and space.
The subsequent pages take the characters on a wild ride. In rapid succession the boy and his parents find themselves stuck on the gangplank of a pirate ship, whizzing past a medieval jouster in a stadium, at the base of a pyramid in ancient Egypt, and stalled among dinosaurs. The spare text that accompanies the images reflects on the way time can seem to stretch.
Through it all, the boy proves difficult to amuse —“my butt hurts,” “I have to go to the bathroom,” he complains as sensational scenes unfold just outside his window. But young readers will be thoroughly entertained not only by the spectacular scenery, but also by the relentlessly delightful details (parents in period costumes! Embedded QR codes!). Amid the fantastic settings kids will recognize familiar feelings of boredom and impatience, twisted and exaggerated into imaginative, surreal landscapes of ideas.
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