Pity the picture book biographer. Theirs is not an easy lot. Seems to me that if you want to introduce a six-year-old to a famous person there are two ways of going about it. The first way is the David Adler method. He’s the fellow behind all those “A Picture Book of” books. Adler’s specialty is synthesizing a person into 32 or 40 odd pages. Along the way he has to boil down a human life into as pure and simple a telling as possible. Sometimes this method works well, and sometimes it doesn’t, but it used to be the only way of creating children’s biographies. Then there’s method #2: You take your subject and select just a moment from their life. Which is to say, you give them breadth and depth and meaning, then do the whole summary of who they actually were in the Endnotes. The advantage to this method is that you can actually explain a concept to a kid, by making the biographical subject into a kind of literary character. Biographies of famous people that limit their focus almost entirely to their subjects’ childhoods are actually kind of rare. Famous people do not necessarily arise out of interesting, cheerful childhoods, after all. So really, one of the many things that I admire about Patrick McDonnell’s first foray into non-fiction is that his subject, Jane Goodall, presents him with early years that were practically custom made to be relayed. The result, Me . . . Jane is the rare picture book biography that manages to please biography fans, fiction fans, and chimpanzee fans (albeit, stuffed) alike.
Young Jane noticed things. Outdoorsy things. With her stuffed chimp Jubilee at her side, there were lots of mysteries to notice too. Jane was the type to climb tall trees on sunny days, or to hide in the chicken coop to uncover the source of eggs. When she read her Tarzan she’d want to be in Africa with all the animals just like him. And when she got older, her dreams really did come true. Backmatter include a short section “About Jane Goodall” and a “A Message from Jane” herself.
Odds are that McDonnell’s a familiar name on the comics page of your local newspaper. Known primarily as the man behind the MUTTS comic strip, I think it’s fair to say that McDonnell wasn’t the obvious person to write this book. I say that, even though I’m aware that animal rights are his passion. We’re talking about a guy that’s a member of the Humane Society’s board of directors and who has used MUTTS as a way of drawing attention to everything from The Wildlife Land Trust to New Jersey’s animal population control fund. However, I have seen his previous picture books. They have names like Just Like Heaven and Hug Time and for my desiccated, not to say sardonic, heart and soul they do nothing for me. Animal cuteness is not one of my weaknesses. So when I discovered that McDonnell was tackling a real person and a real life I approached the idea with more than a mite bit of trepidation. Jane Goodall, let’s face it, would be easy to cutesy up (all the more so when you learn about her life). Though it was his idea in the first place, was McDonnell the right guy to tell her tale? Answer: Yup. This isn’t to say that I wouldn’t like to see her life depicted by other authors and illustrators as well, but McDonnell does something with Me . . . Jane that wins you over right from the start: He gets the tone right. The tone, the telling, the selection of facts, the illustrations, and the slam bang ending.
Sometimes a person’s life fits together so perfectly it’s as if it was destined for a picture book biography. Jane Goodall’s a perfect example of this. If the title of this book strikes you as too twee, that may be because you’re unaware of how eerie it actually is. Growing up, Jane really was given a stuffed chimpanzee at a young age. With the name “Jane” she also grew fascinated with the books about Tarzan of the Apes “in which another girl, also named Jane, lived in the jungles of Africa.” She was a naturalist from birth, it seems, creating her own wildlife society as a kid and spending as much time as possible outdoors. There are also little moments from her life that McDonnell takes the best advantage of. For example, in one scene Jane hides in a chicken coop to learn where eggs come from. When the text reads that she “observed the miracle”, a sentence that might come off as a bit sentimental (it’s hard to pull off the word “miracle” regardless of context) instead feels right on target.
In terms of the art, McDonnell indulges in a muted palette of India ink and watercolors. Jane’s world isn’t necessarily sepia, but there’s a slight brownish tinge to everything, indicating that we’re dealing with the past. For the most part these images take place in reality, but when the switchover occurs and Jane begins to pretend that she’s in Africa, swinging from vines like Tarzan himself, there’s a clear distinction in place to keep kids from getting too confused. In an interesting twist, McDonnell’s watercolors are paired alongside a series of stamped images. Eggs and leaves, moons and trees. They’re hardly noticeable on a first reading, barely drawing the eye or any attention to themselves. Even when you do notice them you might find that some stamps are more perfectly put down than others. The collective effect after a while is that the book starts to feel like Jane’s own notebook. Wildlife has permeated every facet of her story, until that final image. This is one of the very rare books that closes everything with a photograph. The effect is striking, a bit shocking, and darned if it didn’t make me tear up a little. I’ve always wished for photography to take its rightful place in the annals of children’s literature, so why is it that this is the first time I’ve seen a biographical picture book illustrator use a real-life photo to drill home to the child reader that the character they just met was a real person?
McDonnell’s art is good in this book, but what I really admired was his tendency to make Jane not just his subject but also, in a sense, his fellow collaborator. Some illustrator/authors have a hard time letting go long enough to show the art that their artistic subjects created. It can be off-putting to read a biography of Picasso or Monet, only to find the book peppered with the illustrator’s versions of their works and not the works themselves. Jane Goodall wasn’t even an artist in the traditional sense, but McDonnell unearths drawings and sketches she made as a kid and as an adult and sees fit to include them in his story. So it is that we get to see the real pages from Jane’s “Aligator Society” (misspelling intentional) meticulously created when she was just a kid, as well as a final amusing sketch made on site in 1960 of Jane sleeping in a tree with a chimp taking up residence in her tent. It seems that McDonnell makes his strongest points (like the final photo) when he steps back and allows his subject to make a personal appearance in some manner.
My sole quibble, if I must have one, is that I’m a fan of a little backmatter to a non-fiction work, no matter how brief. McDonnell’s is by no means the first biography of Ms. Goodall to be written for kids, so it might have been nice to see links the bios of her done by folks like Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen or Julie Fromer. Failing that, Ms. Goodall has actually written a couple books for kids herself. A mention of her picture book Rickie & Henri could have provided a fun crossover connection, however small.
Some biographical subjects have lives that are difficult to explain to very young kids. Martin Luther King Jr.? Well . . . see . . . there was this thing called segregation and . . . . Sacajawea? Well, she sort of led some guys on a long walk and . . . you see what I mean. Jane Goodall is pretty easy in comparison. Jane Goodall? She got to work with chimps! Outside! And get to know them and save them from bad people. But on a more basic level, Jane’s just like a lot of outdoorsy kids today. The ones that like to explore bushes and study insects and write things down. Mini naturalists in the making. Put in that light and it’s strange to think that this is one of the first picture book biographies ever made of her. There’s definitely room for more, since this one only provides the most cursory of summaries, but for children who’ve never read a biography before Me . . . Jane operates like a nonfiction gateway drug. Get them hooked on this one and who knows what other picture book bios you might be able to feed them later on down the road. Today Jane Goodall, tomorrow learning about the world. A singular creation, one that does both its author and its subject proud.
On shelves April 5th.
Source: Galley sent for review from publisher.
- A star from Kirkus.
- I should note that this is not the only picture book bio of Jane out this year. Jeanette Winter has a way of sniffing out true-life stories for picture book adaptations. Keep an eye peeled, then, for The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life With the Chimps, due out this April as well.