This morning, as the Changeling was eating a grapefruit with her customary intensity and seriousness, I popped the question: “Which books do you like best of all?” The question was chewed over with as much seriousness as the grapefruit. “A Bird Is a Bird,” came first, of course, but we soon got to The Baby in the Hat, by Allan Ahlberg, illustrated in gouache by André Amstutz. “What do you like about The Baby in the Hat?” I asked. Her face glowed, bouncing right out of that seriousness: “The ships!”
Ah, my plan continues apace. One day, I tell you, one day in the future, the Changeling and I will run away to sea in a tall ship and sail far and wide, see remarkable things, and return, baked by the sun and beaten by the wind, to see our old world with new eyes. (My husband is welcome, too, I promise, but he seems to be less fond of boats than my daughter and I. It’s the only thing about him I find truly odd. How can you not love boats?) Anyway, yes, I have read all of Patrick O’Brian’s books, and I love them truly, madly, deeply. Well, The Baby in the Hat is like Patrick O’Brian on training wheels: same world, same time period, but without the, ahem, scandals, and aimed at… oh, crap, I really need to write up a post about why I’m bad at gauging age. The School Library Journal puts this as Kindergarten to Grade 2, and Barnes and Noble says 5+. That sounds OK to me, except the Changeling is two and a half and she loves this book with a pretty fierce passion. And I’m nearly 29 and I love this book with equal passion. Maybe she’s precocious and I’m a slow bloomer? I dunno.
I have one burning question about this book: the US edition was published by Candlewick in 2008. It is now 2016 and you’ll note that I linked you to AbeBooks above (you can also find many copies on the Amazon Marketplace and elsewhere). You will not find it at your local bookstore. It seems to have… disappeared. My burning question? Why? My Candlewick, my Candlewick, why hast thou forsaken me? I love you, Candlewick: why not let me buy copies for everyone, bankrupt my family, endure a foreclosure on our condo, anything but let this book go out of print? OK, maybe not all of that, but I will say that sometimes the vagaries of the book market astonish me, and I think this book is a gem that will hopefully get itself the cult following it deserves. Please do me the honour of allowing me to prove to you why it deserves at least a visit from you at the library, if not tear-soaked letters to Candlewick to bring it back into print if at all possible.
Let’s start with the glorious illustrations. You’ve been to an art gallery, right? Seen some 19th C masterpieces? This book is not composed of 19th C masterpieces. Instead, the vivid and charming pictures evoke J. M. W. Turner (think The Fighting Temeraire) and Jacques-Louis David, but with humour, affection, and sensitivity. You get the wonderful ships, of course, the gently curling Romantic-era hair, the sweeping cloth and dramatically outstretched arms in battle scenes. You also get cats chasing mice across the ship, tumbling sailors, and humorous faces.
One of the sweetest and funniest aspects of the illustrations is woven directly in with the story, however, so let’s get to that. The story is told in the first person by the friend of the main character. Think of The Great Gatsby, only good. (Sorry, I know I just drowned my credibility in the stormy sea, but I stand by my position, as I stand by my dislike of The Itsy-Bitsy Spider.) Our narrator is a serious, bespectacled youth, who grows to be a serious, bespectacled man. Serious, as my daughter is serious in eating her grapefruit, but equally apt to break into a warm, glowing smile as the main character achieves great things: catches a baby in his hat, uses his reward money to go to London, falls onto a ship and ends up at sea, rises in the ranks as he battles pirates and the French (NB: if you don’t hum or sing La Marseillaise at this point then, I’m sorry, but you’re reading the book wrong), and ultimately returns home, a wealthy captain, to fall in love with a lovely young woman who… oh, dare I spoil the ending for you? No, I can’t do it. Go read the book.
But didn’t I tell you that there was some aspect of the illustration which was woven into this thrilling tale with sweetness and humour? That comes through the commentary. At various points throughout the story, we get little word bubbles of commentary. At first, these come directly from our narrator, who might poke his smiling face around the edge of the page to say, “Believe me!” in a fine script, but, as our main character is swept away to sea, others take on the same role: a seagull, sailors, a mermaid in the Southern Seas– everyone joins in, and this mischievous and lovely chorus of voices brings together text and illustration in a wonderful way. It’s a picture book, not a graphic novel (the story itself is told in plain text), but it has that same quality of interaction between the characters and the story and the reader that you find in the very best graphic novels. I imagine, for example, that Charles Vess and Neil Gaiman would love this book.
The swashbuckling tale, the romance, the soft but vivid illustrations, the humour and whimsy– the best overall word I can think of for this book is lively. It bounces right off the page, it makes you smile and laugh and sing martial or nautical songs and national anthems, and sends you straight to harbour to choose yourself a ship.
Ahoy there, readers! Grab yourself a copy, and be not tardy or I’ll cut down yer hammock! See you on deck at six bells.