Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical: A Minimalist Picture-Book about How We Become Who We Are
A brilliant conceptual graphic story about how we get our stripes of character and identity.
By Maria Popova
It is said that “who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.” But it depends perhaps even more on who loved each other before they came to love us — parenting shapes not only our psychological constitution, from our capacity for fertile solitude to our relationship with achievement, but perhaps most palpably our physical. Genetics bestows its blessings and curses upon us with more uncompromising despotism than any of the other cards we’re dealt in life.
How parents shape our own becoming is the premise, explored with remarkable subtlety and ingenuity, behind Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical (public library) by French writer Noémie Révah and Italian illustrator Olimpia Zagnoli — a conceptual, minimalist, maximally delightful graphic book that calls to mind Norton Juster’s vintage classic The Dot and the Line in its geometric metaphors for temperament, yet is completely original in both substance and style.
It is also a beautiful celebration of art and science — the idea was inspired by French poet and photographer René Maltête’s iconic image of a boardwalk-strolling family’s visual metaphor for genetics:
We meet Mister Horizontal, who “loves everything that glides” and “a warm soak in a big bathtub” and “walking in the desert, with sand as far as the eye can see.”
We meet Miss Vertical, who loves “looping through the air” and “is crazy about rockets” and “can often be found on staircases.”
Zagnoli — who also illustrated a recent exquisite edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz — uses flat primary colors to bring bewitching dimension to Révah’s words.
After listing all of Mister Horizontal and Miss Vertical’s varied likes, the final pages ask:
Now what do you think…
…their child would love?
On a subtler level, the book is also a reminder that we are the combinatorial product not only of our parents but of what William Gibson so memorably called our “personal micro-culture” — that we become who we are in large part based on whom we surround ourselves with.
Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical is an immeasurable delight to have and to hold. It comes from the wonderful Brooklyn-based indie picture-book publisher Enchanted Lion Books, an unending source of treasures like the immeasurably tender The Lion and the Bird, the lyrical Fox’s Garden, the vintage gem Little Boy Brown, Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls, and the imaginative geometric allegory Wednesday.
For a very different perspective on the metaphorical geometry of parenting, see Andrew Solomon on “horizontal” vs. “vertical” identity.
Illustrations courtesy of Olimpia Zagnoli / Enchanted Lion Books; photographs my own
Published October 20, 2014