Once in a while I’ll be impressed by a book for kids, pick it up to review it, and in the course of writing the review become more and more impressed as I return to the book for double, triple, quadruple looks. It hasn’t happened all that much lately. Usually it requires a special kind of title. So when I saw Jimmy the Greatest! a month or so ago I thought it might make for a good review thanks to its subject matter. It’s not like fun stories set in poor Latin America villages appear on my desk every day. I read it and enjoyed it but it wasn’t until I reread it, and reread it, and reread it, and reread it some more that the sheer brilliance of this little number got to me. With a careful hand author/illustrator pair Jairo Buitrago and Rafael Yockteng have created a book that is an ode to the people who stay in small communities, helping and improving the daily lives of their friends and neighbors. This is a story that folks can relate to, no matter where they live. It’s a paean to the heroes of small town life. Unsung heroes, I have located your book.
Jimmy’s fishing village is not particularly big or impressive since “there is usually only one small church and, if you’re lucky, a little gym where you can hit a punching bag, skip rope or box.” Boxing is precisely what Jimmy and all the other kids in the village spend a lot of their time doing, until one day Don Apolinar (who runs the gym) gives Jimmy a box containing books, magazines, and information about a guy named Muhammad Ali. Suddenly Jimmy starts using those glasses he never paid much attention to before and he’s reading everything he can get his hands on. In time, Don Apolinar leaves the village for the big city, but that’s okay. Jimmy stays behind, opening a little library and improving the boxing ring, and making the village a better place.
I was discussing this book with a friend the other day and asked her, “Can you think of any other picture book where a character from a small town stays in that town to improve the lives of others?” She pointed out to me that while that may not happen in a lot of fictional picture books, it happens all the time in nonfiction ones. Of course usually in books like Planting the Trees of Kenya by Claire A. Nivola or She Sang Promise by Jan Godown Annino the hero goes away, gets some kind of training, then comes back to their village or tribe to improve life for others. The interesting thing about Jimmy the Greatest! is that our hero stays to make things better without ever having left himself. Yet what I liked about this was that the book doesn’t box Jimmy in. When he’s growing up there’s Don Apolinar to teach him and all the other kids in the village to read and to box. Once Don has made Jimmy into his replacement he feels he’s free to pursue his own dream in the big city. The torch has been passed on and Jimmy accepts that responsibility but the key words at the end of the book are “But for now Jimmy is staying.” Buitrago is allowing you to see this book as whatever you want to see. If you would like to believe that Jimmy will leave one day to seek fame and fortune, you can believe that. If you prefer to think that this is a book about making a difference rather than chasing rainbows then you can see it that way instead. What we can all agree on is that the book is sort of an ode to small communities and the people who do what they can to make their homes special.
If I am to remember 2012 for anything picture book-wise then I think I may remember it as the year when translators went above and beyond the call of duty. This year I’ve read numerous translated picture books that feel as though they were in English from the get-go. From John Jensen Feels Different to My Dad Is Big And Strong, BUT… translated books for young kids are being given a great deal of care and attention. Jimmy the Greatest! is no exception. Translator Elisa Amado brings Colombian author Jairo Buitrago’s words to brilliant life. For example, there’s a moment near the beginning of the book when Jimmy is walking back from the gym along the seashore when we read, “In his heart Jimmy was already a boxer, even though there were no boxing gloves at the gym, and someone there, maybe by mistake, had taken his shoes.” I love that little “maybe by mistake” in that sentence. Amado is capable of conveying Buitrago’s gentle humor and understated wit perfectly.
And part of what makes the writing so interesting is that Buitrago at times mimics and adopts Muhammad Ali’s own boastful speaking style. Jimmy starts saying things like “I’m the champ. Only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick, wrestled an alligator and got home in time to make lunch for Gramps.” This turns around perfectly at the end of the book when Jimmy/Buitrago uses that style to explain why he’s still in his small town. “We dance and we box and we don’t sit around waiting to go someplace else.” Something tells me a line like that could resonate with a lot of people, regardless of where they may live.
Illustrator Rafael Yockteng has collaborated with Buitrago before which probably accounts for how well the images and text mix and merge in this story. Yockteng’s art is highly original. It’s sort of a mix of The Simpsons and The Far Side, but with a sweet undercurrent. I’m not explaining this very well, but I may as well go for broke and say that it also has elements of Anno too. You see Yockteng does several interesting things all at once with this story. Right at the start when we meet Jimmy we see him in sort of a casual line-up with the other kids in the village. You don’t really realize it but this is Yockteng’s way of introducing you to everyone. When he pulls back and shows the whole village you get to see these characters in play. At the beginning of the book you see the village when Jimmy is a kid and at the end you see it when he’s an adult. For fun I wanted to see if the village changed significantly over time and I was thrilled to see hundreds of tiny details that rewarded my curiosity. Yockteng may well be the master of the hidden joke. At the end of the book you realize that the stingray in the ocean has acquired a baby, Jimmy’s grandfather is apparently buried in the yard, the palm trees are blooming, the village is growing, the boat maker is prospering, the preacher is still preaching, Jimmy’s friend with the funny shaped head has grown up and has a kid of his own, and so much more! It’s only equivalent that I can come up with is Jeannie Baker’s Home, a picture book that celebrates the passage of time and the growth of a community. Maybe.
I don’t want to fail to mention that Yockteng’s art is also gorgeous, though. In one scene Jimmy sits on a beach at night and the sea and moon and stars and sky all radiate this kind of beauty and peacefulness. I know that Yockteng works solely in the digital realm, but you’d never know it to look at this book. Then there are the details about the village life itself that you don’t notice until you read it a couple times. Jimmy’s grandfather appears to be pretty out of it in general, but in a sweet benign way. I spent a better part of my rereads trying to figure out who took Jimmy’s shoes (I’m sure the answer is in there somewhere). And of course I should probably mention that there are parts of the book that make it clear that this book was not originally published in America. Imported works for children sometimes (often) contain elements that throw U.S. audiences for a loop. The bare breasts in a Where’s Waldo? picture or pretty much anything Babette Cole has ever even looked at. This book doesn’t carry that feeling often, but there is one spread where Jimmy presents his grandfather with a crocodile sliced up in its middle as a kind of reptilian sushi. Some parents will probably need their smelling salts, but it’s not bloody or gory. Just odd.
We see plenty of picture books for kids that we feel are the literary equivalent of spinach and green beans. We know they’re good for kids so we force them to read them, knowing full well in our heart of hearts that the little buggers will never want to pick those books up again. The secret to Jimmy the Greatest! is that after reading it once, you want to read it again. When you do you begin to notice tons of little details. You start to grow attached to the characters. The words of the story take on a new meaning even. This is the mark of a picture book that crosses over from merely good to great. Never mind that I haven’t even really covered the fact that it all takes place in a Latin American village (and how often do you see amusing stories set there for the picture book crowd, I ask you?). Librarians talk a lot about giving kids books where they can see themselves, as well as books where they can see new places, people and situations. Jimmy the Greatest! is both a window into a new place and a mirror of where a lot of kids are and may be content to stay. A fantastic title and a book I’d encourage every community to purchase, regardless of where in the world you reside.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Kampung Boy by Lat
- She Sang Promise: The Story of Betty Mae Jumper, Seminole Tribal Leader by Jan Godown Annino
- Home by Jeannie Baker
Other Reviews: CM Magazine,
- The author and illustrator appear to have a blog together. I can’t speak a word but I love the images (and the links to picture books from other countries).