Orangutanka: A Story in Poems (Henry Holt, 2015) is one of the latest works from award-winning author Margarita Engle. Engle, who writes young adult novels, poetry, and children’s fiction, has created an exceptional work in picture book form.
Engle weaves a story about a family of sleepy orangutans—all except one who leaves the family nest. The title, Orangutanka, is a word-play that encompasses the words orangutan and tanka, which is a traditional form of Japanese poetry. It is a free form of verse that includes emotion, metaphor, opinions, rhymes and simile. Organutanka has many of these elements in a lively prose filled with strong adjectives and verbs and onomatopoeia. Engle explains in a note to readers that Orangutanka is written in a “string” of tanka lines that follow a basic pattern of short-long-short-long-long lines. It is a sweet story that young readers will relate to and also enjoy hearing read aloud in its tanka form:
Towering green trees
shiver, sway, rattle, and shake
clamber toward colorful mounds
of bananas and mangoes
Inspired by a trip to a wildlife refuge in the Malaysian section of Borneo, Engle shows these large primates in familiar themes and, at the same time, provides scientific information including their endangered status in a fact section. Engle also invites readers to learn more about orangutans in a bibliography of books and online resources. She invites young readers to try an “orangudance” in the activity page that follows the story.
I am impressed with the picture book’s many facets. Engle created a book that contains many elements—narrative, poetry, science, and community-building—within its pages.
The illustrations are colorful and inviting. Renée Kurilla, who has illustrated many books for children, combines hand-drawn sketches and ink to lay out each page in a traditional form. The illustrations have strong elements of linear design that relate a sense of the vertical vastness of the rainforest as well as dimension, depth, and texture such as the bark on the trees, the patterns in the leaves and the even thickness of orangutan hair. The leaves, in particular, were combined with digital enhancements from Photoshop to create the shiny, spongy, organic effect. The lines also show movement such as falling rain and the swaying of leaves and the orangutans themselves, as they move about from page to page.
Another element to the illustrations is how Kurilla captures the orangutan and relates it to human emotion in facial expression and theatrically in movement. The orangutans’ hands in particular are human-like and Kurilla captures this in many gestures. My favorite is the hands up to the sky.
Color is also a dominant feature. The setting is painted in vibrant tints, tones, and shades. Kurilla used harmonizing colors to express the interior of rainforest, but also the time of day and the weather. Bright, cheery greens show the morning hours and as the day grows longer and as the rain begins to fall, the illustrations change to cooler, bluer tones that likewise relate emotion as well as artistic perspective. The rain itself is a key element to the rainforest as well as literal turning point in the narrative. When it stops, the colors appear ethereal, hinting of a warm afterglow and of twilight approaching.
Orangutanka belongs in the classroom library as well in a young child’s bookshelf.
Cuban-American author Margarita Engle grew up in Los Angeles, but developed a deep attachment to her mother’s homeland during summers with her extended family in Cuba. She is author of many young adult verse novels about the island, including The Surrender Tree, which received the first Newbery Honor ever awarded to a Latino, and The Lightning Dreamer, recipient of the 2014 PEN USA Award. Other honors include multiple Pura Belpré and Américas Awards, as well as the Jane Adams, International Reading Association, Claudia Lewis, International Latino, and MANA Las Primeras awards. Books for younger children include Mountain Dog, Summer Birds, Orangutanka, Drum Dream Girl, and The Sky Painter. Engle’s latest story, Enchanted Air, Two Cultures Two Wings (Atheneum, August, 2015) is a verse memoir about her childhood visits to Cuba. Margarita was trained as a botanist and agronomist before becoming a full-time poet and novelist. She lives in central California, where she enjoys hiding in the wilderness to help train her husband’s search and rescue dogs.
Renée Kurilla is an illustrator of many books for kids including Berkley the Terrible Sleeper by Mitchell Sharmat. Before transitioning to a full-time freelance career, she spent 10 years drawing, animating, and designing at FableVision Studios. Renée lives in a little house just south of Boston with her husband, her fluffy cat Timmy, and a forest full of animals. She makes books and also co-blogs on Simply Messing About. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @reneekurilla.
Shelley Carpenter is TC’s reviews editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com