Winner of the Key Stage 2 Fiction Category in the English Association's 2011 English 4-11 Best Children's Illustrated Books Awards
It is often the simplest words and pictures that convey the most potent messages and in this beautifully conceived book, Oliver Jeffers has achieved just such a rare marriage. Text and illustration combine - apparently effortlessly - to tug at our heartstrings in such a way that we know this is a book we will not easily forget.
Jeffers focuses on the big issues - life, love, learning, death and understanding, and he does this successfully, in under 300 well-chosen words. Language of such simplicity also serves to underline the power of the visual. One of the most telling spreads has no words at all, but an expanse of white space speaks volumes.
The book tells the story of `a girl, much like any other', her curiosity about the world and how she shares this with her grandfather, `until the day she found an empty chair'. Not knowing how to deal with this, she puts her heart into a bottle to keep it safe. However, locking up one's heart locks up one's feelings, and as she loses her curiosity so her life loses its joy and richness. But some time later, she meets a girl much like she once was, someone `smaller and still curious about the world', someone who helps her to release her trapped heart so that she is able to fill that once empty chair and enjoy life again.
The book has many messages to consider and offers us lessons to learn. At a time when our own curiosity is often satisfied at the click of a button, and the answers delivered on to a screen, Jeffers shows us how real learning is best done through first-hand experience or by conversation with someone whose experiences go beyond our own. The book shows us the value of relationships based on shared trust and love. It reassures us to realise that we all have times of sadness and despair, when we don't know what to do, but that even if it takes time, these feelings can be overcome. This is especially true in terms of love and loss, but Jeffers conveys hope and optimism with a lightness of touch that is masterful.
A word must be said about the design. The sunny yellow jacket suggests the ultimate happy ending, but this cleverly conceals a myriad of images on the cover itself, some of which are repeated in the following pages, inviting our own curiosity about the world in which we live. The first twelve pages are full double-page spreads, spilling over the page edges, echoing the breadth of the girl's world. This halts suddenly when her grandfather dies, the pages become single spreads, with more written text, the illustrations are fragmented vignettes reflecting the girl's fragmented world. The double-page spread returns only when the girl meets the young companion who reawakens her curiosity. The endpapers also play their part, with the opening line-drawn images giving us the back story of the girl and her grandfather, whilst the final pages show a biological diagram of the heart, reminding us that it is after all just a muscle with a practical function.
Oliver Jeffers has given us a small masterpiece in this brilliantly conceived book that underlines the pleasure and profundity that the best picturebooks can provide, for children of all ages.