Tuesday, February 7
Little Brown 2011
A picture book biography that's more picture book than biography. And that's not a bad thing.
A little girl named Jane is given a stuffed chimpanzee which she names Jubilee. She treasure Jubilee and takes him with her wherever her boundless curiosity leads. Together they climb trees and observe chickens and take a full interest in all the natural sciences a girl can explore in her own yard. Through the books she reads she dreams of far away places and helping animals in the jungles. And at the end of the day when she tucks Jubilee into bed with her she dreams all these things, and when she wakes up she is Dr. Jane Goodall, living among the primates of Africa, her dream come true.
While there are biographies for all ages I would propose that the trickiest is the picture book biography. There is an old tradition of birth-to-death biography that attempts to use childhood as a sort of blueprint for explaining how events shaped the subject as an adult but this isn't without problems. Occasionally a subject's life doesn't have a cohesive progression where life elements can be tied together to tell a story. This will lead to a loose buffet of events that forward a narrative agenda but do disservice to the overall accuracy. Another approach is to appeal to the younger reader through telling the subject's story of who they were as young people, assuming a reader will automatically be more interested in the character of the subject by seeing them as youngsters. The problem with this slice-of-life approach is that the facts need to be molded to match the perception of the adult as a subject. A middle grade biography of Ben Franklin might include his industry, his bent toward invention, and the cruelty he experienced as a journeyman working for his older brother while neatly skirting the issue of his being a runaway or attempting to steal his best friend's girl because these muddy our preconceptions of how a founding father should have behaved.
Huh, how did I get all the way up here on this soap box?
In Me... Jane what we get, technically, is a slice-of-life biography of a girl who loves zoology. McDonnell captures Jane's carefree childhood in a way that is free of period detail which makes it feel universal. There are subtle clues that Jane's story reflects back to an older time – broken text (Old Bookman?) printed over faint images from the 19th and early 20th century books Jane would have read – but the effect is almost too subtle to register. It give the story a different feel but not necessarily a sense of events taking place at an earlier time. This isn't really a problem, just not as effective as I think it was intended.
In the end the two things I'm going to take away from this book will be McDonnell's depiction of Jubilee and the ending where the story jumps from young Jane going to bed to dream and the reality of her dream come true. There is a certain talent required to make a stuffed animal come to life in a drawing which I don't think every artist or illustrator can do. I don't know if this will somehow revoke my MFA but Winnie the Pooh and all his friends always looks to me like a diorama of paper doll cutouts. I don't care how old you are, if you want to buy into the stuffed animal as a living, breathing creature then you have to find a way to convey that sense of life while remaining true to the nature of an expressionless doll. I've always loved, for example, how Bill Waterson managed to draw Calvin's companion Hobbes as both a lifeless toy and a vibrant tiger. Waterson's conceit was that we could see both the adult and the child's view of Hobbes, how that tiger knew when to play possum and how to deliver a punchline when no one else was around to hear it. McDonnell, on the other hand, finds ways to pose Jubilee that he appears to exhibit expressions and life without defying the physical laws that make up a stuffed chimp. Jubilee's permanent smile can appear focused, inquisitive, and expressive simply by the way he is placed within the scene. He becomes more than a companion, he becomes a reflection of Jane's innocence and wonder, and is really a brilliant little detail I think a lot of young illustrators could learn from.
The ending, the jump from young Jane to contemporary Jane, wakes us from her illustrated childhood to a full color photo which, in doing, wakes us from the dreamtime of Jane's childhood dream into a "dreams come true" reality. It's an effective, judicious use of a single photo to underscore the link between childhood and adulthood without belaboring the point. In doing so McDonnell also manages to take a slice-of-life biography and turn it, with two flips of a page, into a near-full-life story by simply suggesting that the details between point A and B are inconsequential. And they are, as they should be, to a picture book audience.
Although I'm late to the party on this review, I understand now why people were abuzz when this came out.