Wednesday, April 28

The Castaway

by James Stevenson
Greenwillow 2002

In 1937 Hubie the mouse and his family go to the movies where they see a horror film typical of the day: The Island of No Return.  Although the young mouse is clearly freaked out by the movie's tidal waves and volcanoes, Hubie tries to play it cool.  At home, a postcard arrives from Aunt Ella vacationing on Barabooda Island, which gives Hubie's family the idea to vacation there themselves.  Despite Hubie's objections, they board a dirigible for their trip and very quickly Hubie wanders off to distract himself from his fear of heights.  Falling out of the dirigible, Hubie lands on a nearly deserted island occupied by a castaway named Leo.  On Leo's island he has fashioned many things to amuse himself – a drum kit, a baseball stadium, a mini golf course – and Hubie ends up having a great time. On an ill-fated test run of Leo's new "car," Leo and Hubie fall in a river, go over a waterfall, and land safely on the dirigible.  Hubie reunites with his family and proceeds with the vacation as if he had never been gone.  Back at home his family is confused by the pictures Hubie had taken – they don't appear to be of the same island they vacationed on – and he's ready for the next family trip... to Mt. Everest? 

The rambling narrative in this hybrid picture book/comic is typical of the kind of thing one of my writing teachers used to refer to as the "one damn thing after another" sort of story.  Initially I bristled at this sort of description of a narrative because, in my scholarly MFA haze, I believed it was a possible approach to storytelling that would appeal to boys and was not bound by the hard and fast laws of Aristotlean thought.  What I've since come to understand is that the real problem with this sort of structure is that it is difficult to pull off, and as a result it is easy to declaim it as an inferior narrative device rather than confuse young writers with nuance. 

If this seems like far too heavy an approach to a children's picture book allow me to suggest that underneath the visceral "I like" and "I don't like" there are sometimes sophisticated reasons beneath what "works" and doesn't, and puzzling out what causes that rift I find useful.  In The Castaway what doesn't work is that the one-thing-after-another (which for a variety of reasons I think of as an Ovidian structure) doesn't convincingly build to it's conclusion.  In the beginning we have Hubie who is clearly afraid, and in the end we have Hubie the fearless, and in between we have a series of events that happen to him that show no shading of his changing emotional state.  It doesn't "work" because it doesn't satisfy our desire to see exactly how the character changes.  Events happening to a character don't necessarily change a character unless we can see how. Things happen just because, and we all understand how unsatisfying "just because" can be as an answer. 

Along those same lines I think Stevenson gets away with it because he can, because his stature as a children's illustrator is high enough that he can put together a story like this and not be challenged at the editorial level because the publishers can bank on his name making more sales than if an unknown were to put out a similar book.  Don't misunderstand, I genuinely like Stevenson's loose ink drawings for the same reasons I like Quintin Blake's work; both artists have a shabby gestural style that is immediately recognizable and for the most part fun. 

I wouldn't say I had high hopes going into this book, but it did surprise me that Stevenson had put out essentially a graphic novel for the picture book set before it fell into vogue and I was curious to know why it hadn't shown up on my radar before.  Now I know.  Style and concept can't carry weak execution on the narrative level. 
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