Today is most unusual in this little corner of children’s book blogging. Normally I choose books to write about by a carefully honed algorithm of “oh, this book’s great, I really feel like talking about this one!” Yesterday, Annabelle inspired me. “Yes,” thought I, “she’s so amazing! Who’s another kick-ass female protagonist in children’s books?” And my absolute favourite, bar none, popped right into my head: Jillian Jiggs. There are a number of books about Jillian Jiggs, but the one that was easiest to hand today, and which I truly believe best illustrates her as a kick-ass female protagonist is The Wonderful Pigs of Jillian Jiggs, written and illustrated by Phoebe Gilman. Note that I linked you to AbeBooks, because that’s the easiest place to get it these days (oh boy, anger’s bubbling…). Here’s the Scholastic Canada page, but how you actually order it is a mystery to me. You basically can’t find it in the United States (growl…), and if I don’t stop myself right here I’m going to end up using language most unsuitable for a mild-mannered blogger of charming children’s books because holy fuck why is it so hard to find this book south of the border? Someone, please, get to marketing this book pronto or I may have to start a cross-border march: “Bring Us Jillian!” (Note that these are pictures from my camera, since it’s hard to find good pictures online.)
OK, let’s start off by thinking about those words “kick-ass female protagonist.” I want to be clear right here, right now: I’m not talking about a trying-so-hard didactic book about how “a girl can do that, too, you know!” That’s boring and insulting to everyone. Of course a girl can “do that, too” (except in exceedingly specialized cases inappropriate for children’s books), and I don’t admire patronizing dreck. I’m talking about a good book: a book which is about a kid who has crazy ideas, follows through on them, grapples with challenges, and comes out triumphant. Her name is Jillian Jiggs, and I love her. I love that she’s a little bit crazy and thoughtless (what kid isn’t?), I love that she reminds me of some of my favourite people rolled into one (crazy ideas like my sister, bubbly like my best friend, problem-solver like another one of my friends…), and I love that she cheerfully pitches into her projects head-first because what could possibly go wrong? I love that she acts quickly and faces consequences later– and there are consequences, because this is life. I love that she is, in every way, a real child, but maybe does some of the things we dream of, as children, but don’t quite dare to do. When I was little, I know that I dreamed through Jillian Jiggs, much as I did through Pippi Longstocking, later.
So, what are her crazy ideas? Well, one day, Jillian Jiggs cleans up her room (wonder of wonders!), and, in the process she finds a jar full of buttons that look just like the noses of pigs. She makes little pigs out of tights and plans to sell them. She makes all kinds of little pigs, in all kinds of outfits– lady pigs in old-fashioned lace, vampires, pirates, and babies. She even names them! (Oh, you know where this is going, don’t you?) She and her crew (her little sister and her friends, Rachel and Peter) gather all the pigs and march down the street to sell the pigs. Her customers line up with dimes in hand, ready to buy her entire stock… and then crisis hits: Jillian Jiggs loves her pigs. How can she sell them? But the mind of the truly creative entrepreneur finds a way! How about selling a how-to lesson, instead? (Seriously, someone get Craftsy on the phone with Jillian Jiggs! This could be big…) The disappointed and angry customers (and Phoebe, genius that she was, shows you the whole range of emotions on those little faces) become happy customers, and everyone’s satisfied.
That’s the basic story, and I think you can see how plucky and creative Jillian is. But that doesn’t nearly get across the exuberance and joy of the book: that comes through the lovely rhyming couplets, Phoebe Gilman’s extraordinary art, and the unspoken message, reinforced by a tutorial at the end, that you can do it, too. Go on, give it a try! Even without being able to understand the tutorial page, my Changeling announced that she wanted to make a pig, too: Jillian’s excitement is palpable throughout the book, the gleam of the next great idea fairly bounces from page to page, and it inspires you without ever directly instructing you to be inspired. How about a doctor? or robots! or maybe a princess.
Each page murmurs quietly, “How could you dress a pig to get that idea across?” And then the illustrations fill in the gaps: the stub of a pencil becomes the pirate’s wooden leg, while pipe cleaners make robot antennae. Anything is possible in the world of “Jillian, Jillian, Jillian Jiggs,/ Maker of wonderful, marvelous pigs!” And, you know, she gets caught up in her own work, too: “She might still be sitting there, sewing away,/ Except Rachel and Peter came over to play.” We all love the pigs.
OK, scroll back up and read those lines aloud. Then tell me: doesn’t that feel and sound good? The whole book is that fun to read, especially when you get to do Jillian’s voice: “‘I simply can’t do it. It’s over. I’m through…’/ Then all of a sudden she knew what to do./ Step right up, friends! Have lots of fun!/ Sew your own pigs! Learn how it’s done!'” And, with that, Jillian takes her disappointed customers and turns the situation around. (Note that, as with Here Babies, There Babies, you and your child should be able to find someone who looks like you at some point in the book; it just reflects life honestly, without making a fuss.) A very successful startup, run by a creative and charming CEO, indeed, and one of Canada’s foremost proponents of the textile arts. I love it.
I don’t know if I even think this is the very, very best of Phoebe Gilman’s books. I have a special soft spot for Grandma and the Pirates, and for The Balloon Tree, and the original Jillian Jiggs book is fantastic, too, and then there’s the one book which did make it south of the border: Something from Nothing. How to quantify which is the best? Oy. Look, give me a break, I am but a humble kids’ book blogger. Another day I’ll write about another of her books, and then you can amiably argue over which is better– I sure as hell don’t know. But, right now, while I was thinking about Annabelle, about tough girls who can go for it and do great things? Jillian’s pig project reminded me a lot of the first day I sat down to write here for the first time: “Hey, here’s an idea! Let’s go for it.” And I hope the Changeling will have her own moments of “Hey, why not?” too.
Oh, and don’t let me forget– I need to rustle up some pig components. I don’t think I have any spare tights in the house…