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Young Children Discover the World in Nikki McClure’s Paper Cut Stories

I recently found an unusual children’s book in our public library: The Great Chicken Escape by Nikki McClure. The book caught my eye because of its cover. The silhouette of a running chicken is cut out of a heavy, bright-yellow board cover. The book is illustrated throughout in striking black paper cuts on a white background. Intrigued, I looked for more work by the author/illustrator and returned home with five wonderful books for young children, aged baby to seven years. Take a look!

The Great Chicken Escape, marketed for ages 4-8, begins with a note from the author, explaining its conception. McClure spent some time in a monastery on Spruce Island, Alaska. She beautifully describes the work of the nuns gathering and preparing food from nature’s bounty in the month of June. Some chickens escape into the forest. The nuns, very busy with their work, know the birds will return for supper and leave them to their day of freedom. The book follows the chickens from the moment of their escape, with a nun in pursuit, to their return to the monastery, where a nun is playing the carillion for vespers.

In this book, Nikki McClure succeeds in becoming a chicken. Her illustrations are definitely felt from the chickens’ point of view. Their adventures include hiding from a cat in a bramble thicket, wading through a small stream, meeting the cows, marching on a forest trail, reaching an ocean inlet with an eagle soaring, in the distance- thankfully-, and laying eggs on the beach. The Pacific Northwest landscape (my own home as well as the artist’s) is rendered in expressive simplicity. So are the Orthodox nuns at their work. With a few cuts of an x-acto knife, McClure puts subtle emotions in the nuns’ faces or bodies.

The text consists of a mere three phrases printed in bold egg-yolk-yellow block letters which accentuate the black paper cuts: “Chickens run”, “Chickens roam”, and “Chickens go home.” These words summarize the chickens’ day, so simple and so much more than simple.

Each picture is cut from a continuous sheet of black paper. It is astonishing to see the artist create the most lively scenes from such a limiting medium.

Having discussed this, my favorite book, in detail, I will shortly describe the others which are all illustrated with McClure’s paper cut art.

Apple is a board book for ages 3-6. It follows the life of an apple: falling from a tree in fall, being found, being shared and partially eaten by a child, ending up in a compost heap, and sprouting in the child’s garden the next spring. Each black and white picture plate contains the bright red apple. Each opposing page has a single word in bright-colored block letters describing the scene.

Mama, Is It Summer Yet? is another board book for ages 3-5. The author often tells a story from the point of view of her young son. In this book she answers his impatient question “Mama, is it summer yet” in a kind of responsorial chant. The mother’s poetic answers and the illustrations describe the progress of nature towards summer.

How to be a Cat, reading age baby to 3 years, resembles Apple in its composition. However, this is not a board book. It is printed in a larger 10.5 x 8.5 inch paper format. The simple but expressive paper cut art shows scenes from a day in the lives of a young kitten and its mother. On each page, the black and white paper cuts are accented by small items in powder blue. Large blue block-letter words capture the essence of each scene. There is no human presence in this book. What we see and read is “being a cat.”

With their super simple text, the four books above are wonderful for beginning readers.

Waiting For High Tide is a more complex book for ages 5-7. The author’s son has grown. We read his more complex thoughts and observations in longer blocks of text. The boy is waiting for the tide to come in on a day by the Salish Sea in Washington State. His family is building a raft. The boy can’t wait for the tide to come in and set it afloat. I love this kind of book which weaves a wealth of factual information into a story. Through the boys’ observations, kids learn many facts about the Pacific Northwest coastal habitat.

Enjoy the paper cut world of Nikki McClure with your children. These five books are only a selection of her prolific work.

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