Children’s books about welding aren’t exactly a dime a dozen. So I was delighted to have recently come across the Metal Man by Aaron Reynolds. This beautifully illustrated book is nothing less than a lyrical ode to the creative spirit inherent in welding. It tells the story of a seemingly ordinary summer day in the life of Devon, an elementary school-aged boy who regularly travels a few blocks from his brownstone to visit the streetside warehouse where Mitch (AKA The Metal Man) uses his oxyfuel torch to create works of art from scrap.
Devon is in awe of the noise, the sparks, the transformational power of the metal man as he takes dirty old forgotten parts and brings them together to form something altogether shiny, new, and memorable. The metal man welcomes Devon’s curious fascination, allowing him to see his creations through the lens of his vivid imagination instead of telling him what he is supposed to perceive. Of course, the Metal Man always keeps Devon at a prudent distance, safe from the torch that he warns will “…tear you up like a thousand killer bees.” But today is different. Today, the metal man turns off his torch and asks Devon what he would like to create. Devon’s would-be creation quickly takes form in his mind’s eye, but he hesitates to voice it because at some level he realizes that the object reveals something very personal about him. However, the metal man helps him overcome his misgivings and Devon soon basks in the revelatory joy of the creative process and the act of giving physical expression to his feelings.
It’s an important message for young and old alike, and one that the Metal Man delivers with an unexpected poignancy for a children’s book. Paul Hoppe’s vibrant illustrations convey the intensity and physicality of working with metal and Devon’s evocative urban dialogue paint a similarly real and vivid picture in the reader’s mind.
“Watcha makin’, Metal Man?” I say.
He don’t answer. He never does.
“Whadda see?” That’s all he says.
It don’t look like nothin’ yet.
But he pulls out his fire torch.
It howls like the El train comin’.
And he starts meltin’ pieces on.
hot and red,
like my sweaty back on the plastic bus seats,
Sweat pourin’ down the metal man,
but he don’t stop.
The Metal Man may owe its especially effective and moving combination of words and pictures to the fact that it was inspired by a real life metal sculptor named Mitch Levin. Mitch Levin is a Chicago born artist who creates sculptures, furniture, and some really cool vintage-inspired lighted signs from a mix of found and fabricated materials. His view on the importance of art are at the heart of his literary avatar:
Art has value because it reflects our culture, our lives, and our journey as humans on this earth. It is our timestamp and our documentation of our life. It inspires, it transcends and should evoke a response in the viewer that captures that moment of discovery when a person first sees your work. Now everyone is different and not all will be moved by every piece I do, but when the connection happens and the viewer gets a glimpse into the artists mind, soul and journey of the creation…it is a moment!
It is this feeling of transcendence, discovery, and personal insight that the metal man helps awaken in Devon, and that the real Mitch inspires in his friend, Aaron Reynolds. Fortunately for us, the result is a little gem of a book called the Metal Man .