Ever tried to write a picture book before? Blooming bloody hard work they are. Synthesizing a point down to as few words as possible without sacrificing story or character is akin to trying to cram a muffin into a mouse hole. It takes skill and talent, particularly if your subject matter is broad. I’ve recently come to the conclusion that if you’re dealing with a very specific subject, like a baby train robber or a dog that wants to fly a rocket to the moon, that is far and away much easier to write about than the big concepts like “love” or “need” or “friendship”. Friendship, as it happens, is at least a little easier since you can pep up your storyline with lots of superfluous details and folderol if needs be. That’s why I sort of get floored when I see something as simple and perfect as Jonathan & Martha. With art and design so beautiful you just want to stroke the pages for a couple hours, as well as story and characters that stand out and demand to be noticed, the eminent Czech author/illustrator Petr Horacek outdoes himself and makes the rest of us a little jealous that he can make it look so very easy.
When we meet our heroes, Jonathan and Martha are two lonely worms living on either side of a large pear tree. One day a magnificently sized green pear falls to the ground. Unaware of the others’ presence, the two eat their way into a fast acquaintance. They immediately set about fighting one another, only to find that their tails are now inextricably linked. Forced to share, the two discover the pleasure of enjoying food, large and small, together. And when a hungry birdie finds a fast (and mildly painful) way of separating them, they now like sharing so much that they’re willing to keep on doing it. Tangled tails or no.
How often do you pet the pages of your picture books? I’m not talking about those tactile board books with their fur and scale elements. No, I mean beautifully crafted picture books where the very paper feels like it could stand up to wind, rain and storm. Books where part of the joy is in running your fingertips over the raised thick illustrations on the book jacket (a pleasure sadly lost to any library system that protects those jackets with plastic covers). Phaidon has pulled out all the stops with this little British import, lavishing their title with thick papers, beautiful die-cuts, covers that beg to be touched, and enough colors to pop out an eye or two.
All that designy stuff aside (and, let’s admit it, that’s just the stuff that gets adults shopping in museum gift shops excited rather than children) there’s a ton of kid appeal to be found here. I have two words for you: worm headlock. Now tell me you’re not interested in seeing that. The book itself looks like it was created in the Eric Carle vein, with beautiful painted sections found alongside parts that may or may not be computer generated (on Horacek’s artistic style the book remains mum). Getting right down to the characters of Jonathan and Martha themselves, I found myself hugely pleased that Horacek chose to make them almost physically identical. Many’s the artist who would have felt obligated to make clear Martha’s femininity with some kind of bow or some long overwrought eyelashes. Part of the charm of the story, though, is the fact that the two worms are pretty much identical (Jonathan’s a touch longer in the tail). Feminizing details would be at odds here.
And did I happen to mention that it reads aloud well? It’s a big book, you see, weighing at around 9″ x 9″. That means it really pops when you read it in a storytime. When you hold it high, a room full of children can make out the details perfectly. And as anyone with any readaloud experience will tell you, die-cuts are a reader’s best friend. It doesn’t hurt matters any that the words work just splendidly as well. I remember a couple of years ago when Horacek’s Silly Suzy Goose was brought to the States and readers were split into two factions. On the one hand you had the folks who thought it was a gift of a readaloud destined for storytime greatness. On the other hand there were a lot of people (present company included) driven positively mad by some of the phrases in the book. No such problems exist here. The writing is incredibly simple and straightforward, punctuated occasionally by a little “Ouch!” on occasion. There’s not a child alive who could watch that ginormous hungry bird and not feel some twinge of fear for the fate of our tangled twosome.
Lots of other picture books come to mind when I read this book. The die-cuts evoke The Very Hungry Caterpillar while the idea of two enemies stuck together so that they become friends is akin to Randy Cecil’s beautifully twisted Horsefly and Honeybee. Jonathan & Martha is clearly it’s own queer little beastie, though. Eye-catching enough to arouse the interest of even the snottiest adult consumer but kid-friendly enough to pass the fearful readaloud-to-a-large-group test, this is the rare book that pleases highbrow and lowbrow alike. Fun and fanciful and far and away one of the best little picture books of the year. You’d do well to make its acquaintance.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Horsefly and Honeybee by Randy Cecil
- Boot & Shoe by Marla Frazee
- Duck and Goose by Tad Hills
- I just wasted a good chunk of my evening having fun reading Mr. Horacek’s blog. Have yourself a bit of fun and waste your day doing the same.
And check out this cool cover of the same book from what I believe to be the UK!