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A writer's 'Journey' Pelham artist's wordless children's book gets rave reviews

  • Livia Sweeney, 2, of Easthampton, looks at Aaron Becker, of Amherst, as he signs a copy of his book "Journey" for her Tuesday at Odyssey Bookshop. Iris Chelaru, Livia's mother, looks on.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Livia Sweeney, 2, of Easthampton, looks at Aaron Becker, of Amherst, as he signs a copy of his book "Journey" for her Tuesday at Odyssey Bookshop. Iris Chelaru, Livia's mother, looks on.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Aaron Becker, center, of Amherst, shares his book with Max Healey, 3, left, of Amherst, Molly Bail, 8, of Belchertown, center right, and others Tuesday at Odyssey Bookshop.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Aaron Becker, center, of Amherst, shares his book with Max Healey, 3, left, of Amherst, Molly Bail, 8, of Belchertown, center right, and others Tuesday at Odyssey Bookshop.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Aaron Becker, of Amherst, shares his book with a group of children Tuesday at Odyssey Bookshop.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Aaron Becker, of Amherst, shares his book with a group of children Tuesday at Odyssey Bookshop.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Aaron Becker, of Amherst, shares his book with a group of children Tuesday at Odyssey Bookshop.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Aaron Becker, of Amherst, shares his book with a group of children Tuesday at Odyssey Bookshop.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Livia Sweeney, 2, of Easthampton, looks at Aaron Becker, of Amherst, as he signs a copy of his book "Journey" for her Tuesday at Odyssey Bookshop. Iris Chelaru, Livia's mother, looks on.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Aaron Becker, center, of Amherst, shares his book with Max Healey, 3, left, of Amherst, Molly Bail, 8, of Belchertown, center right, and others Tuesday at Odyssey Bookshop.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Aaron Becker, of Amherst, shares his book with a group of children Tuesday at Odyssey Bookshop.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Aaron Becker, of Amherst, shares his book with a group of children Tuesday at Odyssey Bookshop.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

His first children’s picture book, “Journey,” relies on illustrations alone to tell the story of a lonely girl who draws a door on her bedroom wall with a “magic” marker, and escapes through it into a magical world where she must draw her way out of danger. The book was called a “masterwork” by the New York Times, and enthralled a group of toddlers at its public launch at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley.

But Becker, an artist who helped design the settings for animated films such as “The Polar Express” and “Monster House,” claims the format of children’s books is just an artistic expression that suits him creatively.

“I don’t really see them as children’s books per say,” said Becker, who is working on two more books in a similar format. “It was more that it was an art form that was a way of creating a story with the kinds of drawings I like to do, which happen to speak to children.”

Because of his background in film, Becker said, this format for storytelling came naturally for him. Before he drew the scenes that appear in the book, he took several months to plan the story and figure out which “visual plot points” to illustrate, he said.

Becker, 39, who lives in Pelham with his wife, Darci Palmquist, and their daughter, Josephine, who is 3, finds the visual form of storytelling prompts more interaction between parents and children.

“I think in a book with words, you’re mostly trying to let the child be read to, and sort of sit back and take it in, and not have to really come forward and meet the book so much,” Becker said. “That’s a huge difference.”

His public book launch Aug. 6 drew over a dozen families to the second floor of the bookshop, where Becker presented his book to a group of toddlers, asking that they tell the story from his illustrations. His daughter was among those in the group.

“You guys have to help me tell the story because I don’t have anything to read,” Becker said as they began.

As he turned pages, he asked the children about they saw, and what it meant for the story.

“How do you think that girl’s feeling?” Becker asked, while showing his illustration of a girl feeling isolated from her family. Several children said she was “sad.” Becker suggested they find out why. He turned the page.

“Is anyone playing with her?” Becker asked. “Does that ever happen to you?”

He flipped through scenes that included the girl drawing a door on her wall, entering a forest, finding a knight and riding a magic carpet.

Hannah Moushabeck, director of the children’s department at the Odyssey, said she and the rest of the staff have been “obsessed” with the book since first seeing it.

“You can read this book 100 times and have different story lines for it, because nothing is set in stone,” Moushabeck said. She added that she hopes the book will win a Caldecott Medal, an award recognizing distinguished picture books for children.

Before moving to the Valley, Becker, who is originally from Baltimore, lived in the Bay Area of California, where he worked as a concept designer for ImageMovers Digital, a film studio run by director Robert Zemeckis in conjunction with Disney.

Becker and his wife moved to the Pioneer Valley in 2008, where he continued working for ImageMovers remotely until Disney closed the operation in 2010.

Finding himself 3,000 miles from the center of the film industry, Becker decided his next project would be a children’s book, something he said he had always wanted to try. He soon realized he was in a “mecca” of children’s book authors.

The Valley is also home to David Milgrim, of Northampton, who wrote “Goodnight iPad,” Jeff Mack, of Easthampton, who wrote “Hush Little Polar Bear” and created the Hippo and Rabbit series, and Diane DeGroat, of Amherst, who authored the “Gilbert” the opossum series and the “Charlie the Ranch Dog” series. All three were present at Becker’s book launch.

After the presentation of his book, he led his young audience in activities with the use of a prop in the form of his own red “magic” marker. He guided the children through situations similar to those faced by the protagonist in his book: He told them they were falling, so they had to draw a hot air balloon, then told them the balloon had fallen in the ocean, so they had to draw a boat. The children rushed to keep up with the challenges by drawing in the air.

Having been a camp counselor in his teens and 20s, Becker said he feels comfortable performing for children, and appreciates the opportunity to do so again through presenting his book. To make sure he would be ready for the launch, he had done a trial run of his book for his daughter’s class at Cushman Scott Children’s Center in Amherst.

“It’s so rewarding to get back to that,” Becker said. “Those neurons are firing again. They’ve been slumbering a long time.”

Continued adventures

Of the two new books Becker is working on, one will continue the adventures of the characters in “Journey.” The other, which will have both words and pictures, is about three space knights. In order to write this story in a way that felt realistic, Becker said, he had to imagine one of his childhood friends as each character.

“It gets me thinking about, what kind of kid was I? How many kids did I hang out with and what were we doing together? How did we interact?”

Becker said he enjoys the creative freedom of working on a children’s book on his own, instead of following a filmmaker’s vision. “Having worked for other people for so long, I was ready to do my own thing,” Becker said.

Becker will be signing books and selling original sketches from “Journey” at Hope & Feathers in Amherst at the Art Walk reception Sept. 5 from 5 to 8 p.m. and at the artist reception Sept. 7 from 4 to 7 p.m. On Saturday, Oct. 12, Becker will again present and sign copies of “Journey” at 2 p.m. at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst. The event is free with museum admission.

For more information on Becker and to watch a trailer of “Journey,” visit his website, www.storybreathing.com.

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