Jack & Jim
Written & illustrated by Kitty Crowther
Hyperion Books, 2000, 32 pp.
Jack, a blackbird from the forest, goes exploring and makes friends with Jim, a seagull. When Jim invites Jack to visit him in his seaside village, Jack discovers a whole new world that he did not know existed. As the two friends explore Jim’s home, the seagulls in the village turn up their noses at having a blackbird as a neighbor. Their friendship grows in spite of the treatment from others. One day they look in a sea chest full of books that Jim uses to light fires. When Jack quizzes Jim about why he does not read them, Jim confesses that no one in the village knows how to read. Jack introduces Jim to books and storytelling. Unbeknownst to him, Jack not only has Jim as an audience but also a little Norbert seagull outside the window who spreads the word about the wonderful stories Jack is reading. Gradually more and more villagers come to hear Jack’s tales and eventually accept him as a welcome member of the community. The friendship across ‘bird ethnicity’ is sealed. The last frame shows Jack sitting on an ocean rock, listening while Norbert reads to him.
The narrative is almost poetic as Jack and Jim notice their different feet, tastes in food, habitats, and literacy skills. While Jack and Jim are curious about diversity, the villagers are suspicious until Jack introduces them to the greater world of story, turning their focus away from differences to the common experience of laughing over a good book.
The picture book is written and illustrated by Belgian Kitty Crowther. While there are not cultural markers that place the story in Europe, there are elements such as dress and food that make the illustrations feel European. The book is written with multiple frames on most pages. Crowther manages to convey a lot of emotion in the eyes and body language of birds. With a dot she communicates the hostility of the village seagulls, transforming the same small dots into hilarity as the seagulls laugh at Jack’s stories. Crowther primarily illustrates her books with pencils, colored pencils and ink outlines. However this particular book is mainly done in watercolors, filling the pages with transparent watery light. Her style is simple, making the anthropomorphized birds warm and welcoming to the young reader.
The text was originally written in French (Mon ami Jim/My friend Jim) and published by Pastel in 1996. The translator made decisions that change the pacing of the story and created tension for reviewers. By interchanging the words for forest and woods, the English text frustrated a reviewer who criticized Crowther, saying that she did not cover the blackbird villager’s reactions to a seagull when the two protagonists visited Jack’s forest home (which they never did but instead visited a nearby wood). The original text is written more simply with fewer words highlighting Jack’s desire to explore, Jim’s simple friendship, and the change in attitude of the villagers. The translator added content, interpreting the story for an English-speaking audience. The story still has impact, but adding to the narrative gears the story for an older set of readers than does the original text and changes the rhythm of a read-aloud.
Crowther grew up in a multilingual and multicultural home and the universal theme of cross-cultural friendship comes through loud and clear. The book could be paired with The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson (2000) and How My Parents Learned to Eat, by Ina Friedman (1984). The book would work best with elementary-aged children since the pictures and text font are smaller in size and rich in detail.
Kitty Crowther’s work is not available in English but that will probably soon change. She is the 2010 Astrid Lindgren award winner so hopefully her work will soon be available in other languages. Her work is often peppered with little black mouse-like creatures like Poka and Mine in her well known series with that name. The two little friends have adventures in many places, similar to Paulette Bourgeois’ Franklin the Turtle or Margaret and H. A. Rey’s Curious George.
University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ