The sun comes up over New York City, silhouetting the ambitious bridges, casting a golden glow on the familiar yet fabled towers of Baghdad-on-the-Hudson. And this is just Barry Root's illustration for the title page of Messenger, Messenger, a beautiful and savvy new picture book by Robert Burleigh. It sets the scene like the opening shot behind the credits in a film.
Turn the page and fade in on the modest apartment of a man called (or at least a man who calls himself) Calvin Curbhopper. A young black man with a Beat Revival mustache and beard, Calvin is yawning and stretching, awaking on his futon on the floor. Nearby are a portable phone, a mug with dangling tea-tag, a snack from last night, and piles of books. Stereo speakers face the futon, and a museum poster is on the wall. This is the contemporary world, Manhattan subspecies. Only the books are unusual: stacks of them cover the stove and fill the sink.
Calvin is a messenger, member of a profession that survives despite fax and email and FedEx. This splendid picture book follows a day in his life in the city. Burleigh's language is colloquial and friendly; Barry Root's illustrations captures the city the posture of escalator riders, the way that people on elevators avoid each others' gaze. There are inside jokes: One dedicatee's name appears on a building's wall; an elegant office building belongs to a firm of "agricultural consultants"; and cubist-looking statues mimic the taxi-hailing postures of busy urbanites. Calvin delivers to the office of a magazine called (a la Orwell) Newspeak. The strangest joke is surprising: while Calvin leans against a street sign to use his cell phone in a millennial tableau vivant, the Batmobile roars down the street behind him. And Root's portrayal of Calvin himself is perfect red sneakers, biker pants, helmet and backpack, Walkman, flip-up sunshades on his glasses.
While Burleigh's and Root's vision of Gotham City is bright and colorful, it also includes glimpses of the darker side of urban life. Curled razorwire guards the top of a wall. When Calvin has to pick up a package in a neighborhood of trash-littered streets and smashed windshields, he thinks, "No place to be, this street, not at all, / But messenger man's gotta answer each call." Calvin's commitment to his work and pride in a job well done mirror the approach of the author and illustrator. Messenger, Messenger is a fine accomplishment, and Robert Burleigh and Barry Root should be proud.