A colourful crowd of people build up on the left-hand page of this picture book as a guard under orders forbids them to cross the line (the gutter of the book). Then, a red ball bounces into the right-hand page and soon everyone follows . . . but the general is not happy on his return.
This has to be one of the most sublimely quirky picture books I’ve ever read! Don’t Cross the Line could be mistaken for a child’s drawing book, with its bright Texta/felt-tip colours, cartoon-like drawings, and dialogue written entirely in speech bubbles. But, take a closer look and you’ll find there’s so much more to discover.
The title page is, unusually, where the story starts, with a ferocious general on horseback making it clear to an unfortunate guard that he (General Alcazar) is in charge. He then leaves his subordinate stationed on the left-hand page next to the gutter of the book – and the rest of the double spread is empty. Yup, it’s almost all white space on the page, apart from a little dog’s snout and forelegs in the top left. What is going on? It takes a few more very white pages, and a few more arrivals on the left-hand page before the reason is revealed. The general has reserved the whole right-hand page for himself so he can join the story whenever he feels like it! Everyone and everything else must remain on the other side of the book gutter.
As we turn the pages, a huge cast of colourful (and quirky) characters turn up on the left-hand page: men, women, girls, boys, an astronaut, an E.T. look-alike, a bunny, a ghost called Boo. They’re all featured – and named – in the front and back end papers. I did mention this was a quirky book, didn’t it?! The characters go about their normal everyday business, jogging, waltzing, chatting, until they reach the guard and the gutter and realise they cannot go any further. Then, the questions start, the sheer disbelief, the appeals and the challenges to the guard’s authority – all expressed in colourful speech bubbles. The increasing tension is reinforced, oh so cleverly, by the form of the book: the noisy, overcrowded, colourful page on the left contrasting with the quiet, empty, white page on the right.
Something surely has to give . . . And it does when a child’s red ball bounces over the gutter into the right-hand page. It’s a simple, but powerful moment: One little red dot on a pristine white page. And it marks a turning point. The guard, who incidentally seems like a nice bloke, lets two children across to retrieve it and the floodgates open! The general is none too pleased on his return to the scene, where he is met first by surprise from the assembled crowd, and then utter rebellion when he turns on the guard – raised fists, raised voices, and an explosion of exclamatory speech bubbles ‘This book’s for everybody!’, ‘Swine!’, ‘Scoundrel!’, ‘Crook!’ (Huge fun for the translator, I imagine!). He never makes it back to the right-hand page to which he laid claim at the start of the story.
Don’t Cross the Line is a must-read. On one level, readers will love the brightly-coloured cast of quirky characters, the fun, easy-to-follow storyline, and the unusual book design. On another, the illustrations, text and design provide readers with an insightful portrayal of abuse of power and people’s responses to authority.
Don’t Cross the Line by Isabel Minhós Martins, illustrated by Bernardo P. Carvalho, translated by Daniel Hahn (first published in Portuguese in 2014 by Planeta Tangerina; this edition, Gecko Press, 2016)
Isabel Minhós Martins is an award-winning children’s author. She is also a co-founder of Planeta Tangerina, which was awarded the BOP for Best European Children’s Publisher at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in 2013. She studied Communication Design at the College of Fine Arts in Lisbon.
Bernardo P. Carvalho is a prolific illustrator of children’s books. Along with author Isabel Minhós Martins, he is a co-founder of Planeta Tangerina, which was awarded the BOP for Best European Children’s Publisher at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in 2013. He studied Fine Arts and Design at the College of Fine Arts in Lisbon.
Daniel Hahn is a writer, editor and translator of (mainly) literary fiction from Portuguese, Spanish and French into English. He has a keen interest in promoting translated children’s books and children’s literature in general. He has translated a number of picture books including Wolfy by Grégoire Solotareff and You Can’t Be Too Careful by Roger Mello.
Check out the fabulous book trailer for Don’t Cross the Line here.