Not Here, But Almost
You’ll recognize everything here. Arched azure sky on a breeze-ruffled spring afternoon. Tessellation of sun on water. Early morning when the treetops are softened by a gauze of gray. Cranes with outstretched wings. Sunsets so flashy they could be sci-fi backdrops. Purpled storm clouds unleashing their torrents. And the entity at the center forming the spine of all these moments, organizing them, defining them—a wide and moody river.
The body of water that snakes through The River isn’t Albuquerque’s Rio Grande, but it almost could be. It’s important in the same way. Watercolorist Alessandro Sanna hails from northeastern Italy near the Po River. In his afterword, he writes, “I have tried to paint these moments and variations of light without first sketching them with a pencil and without knowing if I’d be able to find the right tone or the exact color of the veil of light draped over the sky, the trees, and the houses in the fog.” Perhaps he’s being disingenuous. Over 400 illustrations and almost no words make up The River—part picture book, part graphic novel, part artistic meditation on the lifecycle that defines a place—and they hum with a carefully considered vitality.
Even if he didn’t plan out individual drawings, Sanna has an eye for what is distinct in a scene at each juncture. Here is the moon rising above the trees like an indrawn breath. Here are the birds startled into flight. Turning a page becomes a moment of palpable suspense and wonder: A spring shower gives way to the yellow blaze of summer’s sun; a lattice of bare branches suffuses progressive panels with the spare geometry of a frigid day amidst the sleeping wintertime world.
A story unfolds for each season. In autumn, a town pulls together to battle a flood. Winter brings a schoolhouse, a snowfall, the birth of a calf and the cloud of its first warm breath. Spring is dizzy with young love and a boat party and linden trees bursting into blossom. The feverish heat of summer reveals a circus camping at the river’s edge and the animals being led for a drink. Sanna’s watercolors rise to meet each illustrative challenge, sometimes subdued in washes of gray and russet, sometimes bristling with crisp edges, and occasionally drifting into the whimsical with the flip of a dancer’s braids or the roaring face of an escaped tiger. The result is a volume of gorgeous art that will doubtless be marketed as a children’s book because of its publisher, the estimable Enchanted Lion Books, but I’d hate to see it pigeonholed that way. The River is a love letter and a fantasy, a chronicle and an introspection. It will remind you of home on the Bosque and take you somewhere else entirely.