There is a lot to be said for a picture book book that is so unapologetically Norwegian that it ends up making you completely (not to mention unexpectedly) love it, regionalism and all. If you’ve ever encountered a large quantity of picture books from countries other than your own then you’ll know that tone is everything. Books in America tend to a have a distinctive flavor while books from other nations have another. Sometimes (often?) the two flavors don’t mix but once in a great while you end up with something like John Jensen Feels Different and everything’s okay again. A recent import, the book tackles the familiar theme of it’s-okay-to-be-different and gives it a bit of a twist. Understated and sly it’s a unique kind of book about a unique kind of guy. Funny and unfamiliar all at once, this is one case where the packaging matches the product.
John Jensen. He feels different. He feels it at home, on the bus, and at work. As we watch this perfectly amiable alligator (crocodile?) navigates through the realistic world of humans, holding down a good job as a tax consultant, we see him struggle with the idea. After much thought John decides that it’s his tail that makes him so very different from other people. Yet an attempt to tape it to his body only turns to pain when he sprains it after an accident. At the hospital he makes the acquaintance of Dr. Field (a nice elephant) who gives John the inspiring words he needs to stop being silly about his tail/who he is and to get on with his life.
I love the deadpan humor of it all. In fact the visual gags are such a perfect complement to the text that I was surprised to find that the author and illustrator weren’t one and the same. They must have consulted with one another heavily when creating the book. For example, I loved how artist Torill Kove portrayed John as a slightly sheepish reptilian office mate. There’s a great moment when he looks at a picture of fellow alligators, all of whom are his identical match, and he thinks, “Maybe I was adopted” followed by the book’s comment that “He doesn’t seem to look like anyone else in his family.” There were other little sly moments as well. I love that Dr. Field wears red sneakers. And I thought the endpapers were particularly keen. At the front of the book is the beginning of John tying his customary red bow tie and at the back is the rest of the process. It’s practically step by step.
Then there’s the story itself. This is one of those books where the child readers squeal in frustration at the hero’s seeming stupidity. As John tries to figure out why exactly he’s different you can practically channel the voices of five-year-olds across the globe that scream, “He’s an alligator!!!” Of course, by not mentioning that John is an alligator (or is he a crocodile?) the book becomes an easy metaphor. By the way, the translation of the book is by one Don Bartlett. Let us all now stand at attention in honor of Mr. Bartlett’s work. I say this because as I read the book through for a third time I was struck by how well the text reads aloud. It has this straightforward natural quality to it that you can’t help but enjoy. The kind of thing you tend to find in picture book classics.
As for the Norwegian setting, it’s a pip. Really great stuff. The publisher has taken care to make sure that any time something is written in the pictures, the words are in English. Phrases like “Employee of the Year” and “Oslo Times” are prevalent. Then there are the translation of items that Yanks like myself will have a hard time figuring out. At one point we get a glimpse of John’s dinner. On a plate rests a fish skeleton and next to it a rolled up tube of some sort with just the letters “LETT” visible. I’m pretty sure that anyone familiar with Norwegian culture would be able to tell me what the rest of that word is. Then too there are the casual references to the nearby Royal Palace culminating in the story’s triumphant ending when John stands waving his flag for the Norwegian king.
If there’s a problem to be had it could be the only mild conflict and somewhat abrupt ending. John’s under the impression that people stare at him, but there’s not evidence to support that feeling. Of course, we can probably all identify with the impression that everyone’s staring at you when they’re really not. Still, there’s no real impetus for John waking up one day convinced that he’s not like everyone else. As for the solution at the end, John stops worrying when Dr. Field helps him see the many uses of a tail. It’s a mild solution for a mild problem, so don’t hand this one to a kid if you’re hoping for any great insights. Really, it’s the charm of the other elements (the art, the writing style, etc.) that are its greater strengths.
Let’s just put it this way. Any picture book that includes a shot of the hero lying awake in bed with a copy of Albert Camus’s The Stranger open on his tummy is not trying to fit in with the general pack. Like John Jensen himself this book could have done any number of things to try to look like all the other illustrated books for kids out there. In refusing to do so it separates itself from the masses. It ends up being something you’ll remember long after you put it down. And if it has that affect on an adult, imagine how it will affect child readers. If you’re looking to hand them something smart and funny and charming that is its own beast and no one else’s, look no further than this little Norwegian gem. I guarantee you’ve never seen the like.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
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