Oliver Jeffers is an odd duck. This is a statement that should surprise no one. The man simply has a very distinctive way of looking at the world. Labeling his style doesn’t seem to work either. For a while there he was sort of the average-boy-meets-small-friendly-creature author/illustrator thanks to Lost and Found and The Way Back Home. But then you have his other titles to contend with. His How to Catch a Stars. His The Incredible Book Eating Boys. I often find that I can fill up these reviews simply by comparing a certain author/illustrator to similar artists working in similar fields. Unfortunately for me, if Jeffers has been unduly influenced by one artist or another, I’m sorry but I can’t figure out who that might be. Oliver Jeffers is, as I have said before, an odd duck. And we wouldn’t have him any other way. The Great Paper Caper is proof enough of that.
There is a mystery lurking in these woods. It started small enough. Local forest denizens hardly even noticed when the first branches of their trees started to disappear. When the trees themselves started to go, however, it was time to do some serious detective work. At long last something was found near a crime scene; a paper airplane. A paper airplane with the paw prints of the local bear all over it. And sure as shooting when the animals check it out they see that the bear has been turning a plethora of wood into paper airplanes in a vain attempt to live up to the paper airplane stardom of his ancestors. After a full confession and an outpouring of sincere regret the bear is sentenced to a replanting of the trees and his fellow animals find a way to help him come to terms with his paper airplane legacy.
Stories of industrious lumberjack bears do not initially sound particularly British. Close inspection of Jeffers’s illustrations (and they all deserve close inspection, you know) show that the man is prone to particularly British moments. Note the judge’s wig. Or the red telephone booth into which the other animals climb. These all are merely indicative of Jeffers’s love of tiny details. Since he’s not an intricate artist like Peter Sis there’s a temptation to write off the art of Jeffers as straightforward and plain. Take a closer look at the book, however, and all kinds of tiny slights and thought out whiffs of detail catch the eye. Things like the bear’s Mark Spitz-ish ancestor who was a paper airplane winner in 1972. Or, even more subtle, the final image where the bear merrily water a tree, a single bare light bulb glowing in his trailer, not thirty yards away.
Going back to the style of the artist, Jeffers has always had a weakness for critters and creatures that toddle about on two thin stick-like legs. He avoided it with the penguin in Lost and Found, which was only right since penguins are meant for waddling, not toddling. Generally it is a look that has suited his small animals and people quite well. So it was strange to look through this book a second time and see that the bear, of all creatures, also sports a pair of legs that resemble nothing so much as a pair of well-spaced dowel rods. And while that might be considered distracting to some you really don’t notice it, apart from that image on the cover. An unexpected look, certainly, but one that fits within the rest of the book without any problems.
I do appreciate that the bear doesn’t actually, y’know, WIN or anything at the end. Jeffers ends the book on a note of triumph that doesn’t actually say, “and then the bear won the contest.” In the end, all the other animals recycle the bear’s discarded, defunct airplanes and turn them into a humungous airplane (love the fact that it’s still lined paper) and he rides it in style to the finish line. Which is all well and good, but that fortunately isn’t the same thing as saying that he actually won or anything. I mean, it’s pretty clear from the get-go that the bear is a lamentable paper airplane pilot. His creations fail with a kind of unceasing certainty that is somewhat reassuring in this crazy madcap universe we live in. If he were to suddenly win of his own accord or, worse, thanks to his new friends’ intervention, that would be despicable. As it stands, Jeffers takes the clever middle road and all is well and right with the world.
The book doesn’t have quite the same emotional grip of Lost and Found, Jeffers’s best book to date. However, there is much to be said for a picture book as thoroughly amusing and enjoyable as this. If you happen to be in need of a good winter mystery, particularly one that the small tots reading with you will be able to solve on their own, I can’t think of a better title to hand you. Purely enjoyment from start to finish.
On shelves January 22, 2009
Notes on the Paper Itself: All the British blogs have been ooing and cooing over the fact that in their land this book is printed on, "FSC paper (paper that comes from replenished forests)." I’m trying to figure out if the Americans did the same. Doesn’t look like it. If Penguin did then they’re being mighty silent on the subject. A pity, since they could have promoted this as an out-and-out earth friendly Earth Day book with a little proper preparation. Now it’s just like every other title on the market. A lost opportunity.
Notes on the Endpapers: Wonderful. Take a gander at the first of the four:
The ones in the front are different from those in the back, which is lovely. Unfortunately, many of the details do dip beneath the book jacket, which means that a lot of library systems will be gluing down that cover on top of some pretty cool notes. One gag at the end in particular will be missing entirely from many a library copy.
- This book was found on the Roald Dahl Funny Prize Shortlist for children the age of six and under.
- Notes on the initial launch of the book in Britain. I was particularly fond of this photograph:
- And here for your amusement is the British cover:
Alas, there is no "TOP SECRET other use" for the American jacket.