Thursday, May 17

Martin Pebble

by Jean-Jacques Sempe
translated by Anthea Bell
Phaidon 2006
Originally published in France as Marcellin Caillou
Editions Denoel 1969

Martin Pebble is a charming little boy normal in all respects except for the fact that for no reason at all he blushes. He blushes when he shouldn't and doesn't when he should, all of it out of his control. Doctors promise cures but in the end Martin's condition remains unchanged.

One day he meets a new neighbor, a boy named Roddy Rocket who, for no reason whatsoever, sneezes uncontrollably. Martin and Roddy recognize soul mates in each other and from that day on they are inseparable. Overlooking each others differences they play together, share illnesses and become each other's champions.

When Roddy's family moves suddenly a letter with their new address intended for Martin is lost. Martin tries to lives his days as before but without his best friend the places and moments they once shared feel empty.

Martin grows to be a man who continues to blush uncontrollably. It still catches him off guard and is occasionally an embarrassment, but nothing he hasn't gotten used to. One day at a bus stop he hears the unmistakable sneeze of his childhood friend Roddy. They meet up and discover that despite the years they have remained their same old selves. They return to their familiar haunts, their old play, returning to their old routines as though the years between had never happened. Of course they are older and cannot keep the old paces but they are just as comfortable as they once were just sitting silently in each other's company, passing the hours.

And their boys have grown to be just like them in every way, inseparable friends, one who blushes and one who sneezes.

Sempe tells Martin and Roddy's story in a way that seems alien by today's standards; in small pictures surrounded by lots of blank space, the barest of spot color (usually Martin's red face), and over the course of 120 pages. The tone and presentation is perfect, telling Martin's simple story with a measured pacing. It isn't necessarily poetic, though it does focus on the quieter details of childhood friendships. There is something, oh, I don't know, French about how much story is told without seeming like there's any story there at all.

In a lot of ways I almost wonder if the book works with kids at all. There is an underlying nostalgia to the story that isn't the sort of thing a picture book reader is going to be familiar with, and the latter section of the book that deals with the adult versions of Martin and Roddy might just as easily bore a young reader. No, I don't think it is boring, only that picture book stories that feature grown men trying to relive their youthful exuberances probably isn't going to register.

If the illustrations look familiar you may be confusing his work with that of American illustrator R.O. Blechman whose wiggly line style is similar and not at the same time. No, Sempe is the artist many know for his little spot drawings for Rene Goscinny's Nicholas books which, happily, are currently being reprinted in this country again and are highly recommended if they haven't already crossed your radar.

Martin Pebble is probably one of those picture books best appreciated by adults, much the same as Dr. Seuss' later books (Oh! the Places You'll Go, You're Only Old Once) are primarily purchased by adults for adults. Seeing as this is graduation time perhaps Martin Pebble would make a nice alternative for the adult who appreciates picture books and would like a nice little message that isn't trying so hard.


Monica Edinger said...

Sempe also does a lot of New Yorker covers. I find him quite different from Blechman. Sempe's work feels serene while Blechman's comes across to me as edgy.

david elzey said...

Blechman has done his fair share of New Yorker cartoons as well. Agree about the style differences though.