I love Johanna Wright’s art. When I saw her first picture book, The Secret Circus (2009), I read it three times before I would share it with anyone. There was something so honest about the illustrations that I was hooked. I stalked her website and drank in the details about her efforts to sell her art on the streets of New York City and celebrated when she moved to Portland and had a baby. I hoped that motherhood would not slow her down.
In her new picture book, Bandits, Wright takes a raccoon and transforms it into a charming bandit with only a sly stroke of her paintbrush and black pen. When I read this book for the first time, I was staying in a cabin where raccoons were anything but adorable. Though my tolerance for the little garbage-tippers was at an all-time low, one look at Wright’s clothed raccoons, sneaking and creeping, doing just what they please, made me remember just how much I liked raccoons in any books I read as a child.
Most of the story takes place at night, allowing a fabulous palette of dark blue, brown and green, lightened by a sliver of moon or flashlight. The hound dog (called “the fuzz”) does his best to stymie the bandits, but clearly is no match for the thieves, who beat a hasty retreat (stopping for a picnic on the way) to their tree house, where they “lay low” (reading and drinking tea) until the next night. With each turn of the page, the sky lightens a little, the colors changing as sunrise appears, allowing for a perfect visual passing of time.
Adults will identify with the weary townsfolk who are forced to clean up the dumped trashcans. Children will root for the raccoons all the way. Why not? The raccoons are having all the fun and facing none of the consequences and they get to live in a fantastic tree house, keeping an eye on the town all day long. Little details (raccoons on swing sets, brushing their teeth in the town hot tub, carrying baskets of loot in their stick-figure arms, picnicking under the owl’s watchful eye) on each spread will entice young readers and listeners to return to the story over and over. It might even convert some of their parents. Maybe.