Hungry Jim

First things first because I’m so happy with you all:

To those of you who wrote to me about Joan Aiken? THANK YOU. I knew you were out there, but having the opportunity to hear from others, on the blog and in my inbox, that, yes, she really is that great– what a priceless opportunity. I’ve sent out most of your books, but the rest will be going out early this week. You have no idea how happy you made me. Please, keep writing!

As for today’s book? This is a new one, and one I suspect will stick around for a while.

Hungry Jim.jpg

Laurel Snyder occupies a soft spot in my heart as the author of the first book I reviewed for this blog. Go on, search for it– it’s a good one. (Hint: Swan) (We still read it, it still makes me cry.)

Well, her new book, Hungry Jim, illustrated by Chuck Groenink, shows her breadth and dynamic range as an author: where Swan was lyrical, quiet, and constantly striving for the next great aesthetic moment, Hungry Jim is at war with itself: angry, scared of its own anger, and growling for the next meal.

Also? Swan is not funny. Hungry Jim is very, very funny.

Both are high achievements, but Swan made me cry and think and Hungry Jim made me laugh and think.

But to focus in on Hungry Jim as the book we’re actually talking about today, I want to first give you a sense of what the book’s about, and then we can talk about why it’s on this blog today.

I’ve been waiting for this book for a while, because a) Chronicle Makes Good Books; b) Laurel Snyder Writes Good Books, and c) Chuck Groenink Illustrates Good Books. But I went in with no preconceptions– completely uncertain of the story. And since I think that’s the way to go I’m going to try not to spoil much for you. But.

Well, Jim wakes up one morning and he’s hungry. Good: His mother is calling out that pancakes are read! But he’s not hungry for pancakes. After a war between his sense of being Jim and the desires of his stomach… his stomach seems to win, and Jim runs for it, into the forest. So, Jim has to sort out Who He Is, and when he does– he’s sated. He returns home to the town from the forest… and everything is just the way it was (sort of) and he has pancakes.

Great. What a simple story. (Sort of.)

But there’s more to it, of course. It’s hard to relate what makes it so special without spoiling it all, so I’m going to let my daughter’s reaction speak for me here. When I read it to the Changeling tonight, she giggled, at one point she hid behind my shoulder, and then she snuggled into me at the end. I closed the book and she said, “That was a good book, wasn’t it?”

I agreed, and said, “It reminded me of another book, did you feel the same way?”

She said, “Yes! Jim is like Max and he runs into the forest in the same way.” (Referring to Where the Wild Things Are.)

And, yes, there is a very not-so-subtle poking into the Maurice Sendak aesthetic and humour at work here. It’s done without any gentleness and yet with great sensitivity. The activity of anger and primordial hunger as almost independent forces– that’s Sendak. The war of the wild against quiet domesticity– totally Sendak. The enactment of the bestial in the safe space of the wilderness– Sendak again!

This isn’t my daughter just being brilliant: the book is consciously dedicated to Sendak, for crying out loud; it’s all in the open and I’m not spoiling anything for anyone. (Sort of.)

But it could be a disaster, couldn’t it? If someone had told me before reading, “This book is a conscious homage to Sendak,” I’d have hesitated. Sendak is sort of hard to do, he was so original.

That’s where Laurel Snyder and Chuck Groening come in, though: they don’t try to “do Sendak.” They do themselves, but they themselves love Sendak so ardently that Sendak just… comes through, and because they understand Sendak so very well, he comes through without timidity, without false delicacy, and yet taken very seriously.

In short, read it yourselves and see: there are pages that whisper “is this a bit like Sendak?” (for me the opening felt like that) and there are pages that scream “OK WE’RE TALKING ABOUT SENDAK HERE,” and those are both done brilliantly, right down to the glorious bold line- and colourwork of the art.

But, you know, folks: ignore me on this one.

If the fact that I told you that my 6-year-old daughter read it with me, giggling and hiding and ultimately snuggling up and contemplatively comparing it to Sendak hasn’t sold you on the book? Well, I don’t know what I can say.

Except that this is a book kids will love and identify with– and so will adults.


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