You might not know this about me, but I love to buy children's books, especially picture books. I give them as gifts for birthdays or baby showers. But mostly I buy them for myself. And while I do sometimes buy them to study illustration styles and learn new techniques, the truth is that sometimes, no matter how young or old you are, you need the kind magic that only a picture book can conjur. And these days, those sometimes, are happening a lot more. But thanks to Urbana native Michael Roughton, author and illustrator of Chisel a Grey Stone, we have a new story that may help us through this particularly dark and lonely winter.
Chisel a Grey Stone tells the tale of a young elfin artist named Chisella Graystoan (of said chiselling) who, like most of us these days, feels the walls closing in on her. Cooped up in a tiny room, in a tiny village, she faces a rare breed of storybook monsters: her own boredom and despair.
Roughton heightens Chisella's loneliness by not introducing members of her family or her village. Self-reliant, and unafraid, Chisella sets out to change her world on her own, armed with her own brand of magic, an artist's imagination.
Image from Michael Roughton's website
Leaving behind her paintbrushes, she packs the tools best able to transform her exterior, and interior landscapes: chisel and hammer. As she heads into the mountains, transforming stone into gargoyles, arches, and other artistic and architectural wonders, she infuses life and beauty wherever she goes.
What sets Chisella apart from other heroines is her ability to control, and adapt, her own narrative. She does not need to be transported to and from another land in order to come into her own power. It is the power of her imagination that drives the story.
Chisella’s town, though vividly drawn and filled with charming old-world detail, like Chisella herself, reads both timeless and timely. She makes her world bigger yet also more intimate. The gargoyles, touched by her warmth and her talent, become friendly companions.
Roughton renders his heroine and her newly animated creatures in a style that feels fantastical yet relatable. When two of the gargoyles, referred to as the “mean ones.” refuse to play nice, one blows an “awful horn” which blows “TWEET!” I'd like to think that this was an Easter egg for older readers who are all too aware of the power of the mean tweet.
Chisella’s ability to turn their cold hearts warm with the simple words “I know you two. I made you both out of the hardest stone of all. Don’t be such MEAN ONES” extends her artist's power into the realm of peacemaking. One of the narrative advantages of Chisella's small, sparsely inhabited world is that it can easily bend to the will of her imagination. And in a time when so little seems in our control, Chisella's world offers a satisfying respite.
As the sun sets and Chisella makes her way back home, she looks back up at the mountains longingly, confident that tomorrow will bring an equal measure of fun and adventure. And in Roughton’s vivid illustrations we see that the landscape has indeed been altered. Our heroine and her big ideas have won the battle against claustrophobia and boredom. More importantly, Chisella has transformed her perception of time. Time now equals opportunity. And in this winter of COVID, this may be best lesson we can take away. Open the window, get outside, climb your version of a daunting mountain and trust in your tools, your ideas, and yourself. You may not be able to to turn foothills into gargoyles, but you can learn to see like an artist. To see beyond what is, to what could be.
And now a final note about formats. This reviewer, motivated by a deadline, initially chose the e-book for ease of access, but was surprised by how well the illustrations were rendered. Yet part of me was still itching to see and feel those illustrations in their analog format. Call me old school, but climbing under the covers with my tablet and gesturing from page to page, had me missing the tangible turning of the paper. But on the plus side, zooming in on the digital version takes you deep into the details of Roughton’s fantastic and fantastical art. For students of illustration, as opposed to bedtime readers, digital may well be the way to go.
Top image from Michael Roughton's website
Word on the interweb is that Roughton is currently at work on a new book, and its got dogs.
Watch a video of Roughton reading Chisel a Grey Stone here
You can get a copy of Chisel a Grey Stone from the author's website or at International Galleries in Lincoln Square Mall, Urbana.