Updated: Jan 20, 2019
Thanks to Penguin Random House for sending me a copy of this book for the purposes of review:
As a loyal fan of Jacqueline Woodson’s chapter books from her iconic 2014 release Brown Girl Dreaming to her brand-new, stirring masterpiece in the upcoming Harbor Me, I found myself rather excited and nervous at the prospect of reading one of her picture books. Even though her catalog of picture books ranges far and wide from Each Kindness to Visiting Day, I had never read one of her picture books before and doing so seemed like a daunting task. Woodson is known for her thematic elements and layered storytelling, attributes that don’t seem to fit well within that of a picture book. However, even with these stereotyped perspectives in place, The Day You Begin is a stirring and touching story that plays on both its simplicity and complexity to great effect with its lavish and inventive illustrations that bolster its story far past the finish line.
From the very first page, it becomes immediately clear that The Day You Begin is lavishly beautiful in its illustrations, which are done by artist Rafael López. The images on display boast a diverse range of color and easily rank as one of the best illustrated children’s books for the entire year.
They are simply stunning to behold in both their design and execution. In addition to the sheer quality of the drawings themselves, they are also astoundingly impressive in their ability to propel the story. Each page features drawings that tell a separate literary story that feels both unique and original. Minor details are quickly brought to the very front, from minor curls in a character’s hair to the tiny specks of green representing kimchi. It’s a masterful storytelling play by López and creates an experience that ranks as one of the best in his entire career so far. That said, with all the inventiveness and originality displayed, it’s hard to sometimes avoid how some designs feel flat, particularly supporting characters. Their faces have a more two-dimensional aspect rather than the two-and a half dimension that the rest of the illustrations contain. It’s certainly a minor flaw, with it only being noticeable in certain illustrations but it certainly does exist and is probably the weakest aspect of the illustrations.
As mentioned before, The Day You Begin is a touching story, and even though the illustrations do much to support that, it is really due to Woodson’s stylish writing that it is able to achieve this rare feat. Aiming for a younger audience, the book obviously has multiple uses of simplicity. The content within the plot is noticeably brighter and less convoluted as in her chapter books. But that doesn’t mean that complexity can’t still be found. Certain lines and phrases carry such literary connotation that it left me pondering for moments on end. The stylish curls in Woodson’s writing help create a mystified feeling in light of the realistic story. From her subtle word choice to the intricate arrangement of the phrases, there simply is a refined approach and feeling to the entire book, creating an experience that is anything other than hollow and moldy.
As a whole, The Day You Begin is a masterfully told and illustrated experience targeted towards a younger audience with complex themes. While I wish that some of the illustrations were more detailed and that Woodson could take the themes even further, The Day You Begin is still graceful and refined in its approach, crafting illustrations and mental images that have stuck with me far better than any recent YA book has. From the minor details in the style of Woodson’s writing to the stunning detail that can be found hidden in each of López’s illustrations, The Day You Begin is beautiful and is one of the best children’s books for the entire year so far.
Score: 8.8 out of 10