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Review: Palazzo Inverso by D.B. Johnson

Palazzo Inverso
By D.B. Johnson
Houghton Mifflin
ISBN: 9780547239996
Grades K-3
In  Stores

I first encountered the work of M.C. Escher in a bookstore. I had seen optical illusions before that point, but never to the precise heights on display in works like Relativity and Waterfall, which were hung around my local shop. With the amount of time I spent staring at those images during my formative years forages to the kid’s section, I’m surprised to see that there aren’t many Escher-related books for kids. Add one to the list. D.B. Johnson (Henry’s Night) has created an homage to Escher’s mind-bending artwork for the lower elementary set. The potential here is great, but while Palazzo Inverso works as an introduction to Escher for youngsters, the overall results are mixed.

Mauk is in a rut. Every day seems the same – wake up, work for the Master, repeat. Today, however, something is different. Mauk can’t put his finger on it until he visits the Master’s Grand Palazzo, which is still under construction. Somehow, the rules of physics and gravity have lost their hold. Upside-down arches, stairways leading to who knows where, workers on the ceiling – it makes no sense. An encounter with The Master reveals that Mauk was turning the plans, causing the Master to draw the Palazzo every which way.

The text streams across the bottom of each two-page spread. Once the reader reaches the last page, the words run up the side and continue upside-down at the top, requiring the reader to flip the book over to read back to the beginning.

This change of perspective gives each illustration new meaning. And the main attraction here is unquestionably the Escher-inspired artwork. Johnson uses hazy sepia tones to tell the story, giving the story a well-worn feel while mirroring Escher’s monochromatic work. While some images work well upside-down, others don’t connect as well with the plot, occasionally giving the feeling that the story is just along for the ride.

Some readers will enjoy the unique format, many will dig the art, but the plot may not be compelling enough for everyone to stick around for the conclusion. A valiant artistic effort, but not as engaging as I’d hoped.

Review copy from library.

Read an interview of D.B. Johnson at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

Find this book at your local library with WorldCat.

About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.