Friday 2 November 2018


Some details of a story have their place in the literal, but also operate at a deeper level. More happens in the story than we are able to take in at once. So when writers are asked: what is the theme of your story? it's tricky to pinpoint. A story unfolds and is ‘presented’ rather than ‘reported’. You can’t say Cezanne was a painter of apples and tablecloths, and feel you have told everything of Cezanne.

A writer works from a realm larger than his conscious mind and often the result is a surprise to him or her, as the story starts to lean away from the typical towards the mysterious and the unexpected.

I was looking for the mysterious and the unexpected in bookshops in the States recently – admittedly mostly in picture books. There were plenty of books about girls doing great things and plenty of books about having respect for others. But where were the books they would fire up a child’s imagination and curiosity? Where were the intriguing illustrations to turn back to again and again? Where were the many-layered stories, imbued with humour as well as sadness?

This is what I found:

At the Harvard Coop in Boston, there were some of my old favourites like William Steig's Doctor De Soto.

But there were other intriguing titles too like, They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel, where the reader observes a cat from the vantage point of other creatures and birds, some as the hunter and some as the hunted. The wonderful illustrations on every page explore the natural world through perception. Funny as well as glorious.

At the Harvard Coop too was Storm by Sam Usher (yes… from the UK but great to see in such an American Institution). Wild and wonderful drawings with a real feel of stormy bluster, showing a special bond between grandfather and child as they set out to fly a kite… with a little dip into fantasy too.

At Sherman’s Bookstore in Bar Harbor, Maine I bought a copy of I am Henry Finch by Alexis Deacon and Viviane Schwarz. (UK again). It’s a book of sheer genius – not just in the execution of the wonderful finch illustrations but in the concept of transformation. "I think... I could be great," thought Henry.

At a lovely bookshop in Farmington, Maine, called Devaney Doak and Garrett, I bought the Fan Brothers book Ocean Meets Sky with its amazing dream sequences and cloud formations that float through the pages. All those who have ever looked up at clouds and seen dragons and ships, this is the book for you.

Their previous book The Night Gardener, I found later at Barnes and Noble in New York – a little boy wonders who is cutting the trees into such strange shapes. There's an incredible sequence of the animal-clipped trees changing through the seasons that would fascinate any child. It did me.

In the bookshop in Farmington, Maine, called Devaney Doak and Garrett, I also found Town is by the Sea (which I've spoken about before on ABBA when it was first short-listed for the Greenaway having now won it) set in the coal-mining town of Glace Bay on Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island in the 1950s. There is something quite majestic about this small in size book... the shimmer of the sea, the boy, the intimate family life, the way the light falls across the floor, the community of mine workers who go underground every day... told so sparsely and with such pared down illustration. It is one of the most perfect matches of illustrator to writer. And for me it both uncannily and perfectly evokes my 1950's childhood of growing up next to the sea in a town that was entirely devoted to 'The Factory' which produced dynamite.  

In Jackson, New Hampshire I came across not just covered bridges (like in Madison County) but this absolutely charming library with a seat on either side of the covered porch for anyone who felt like reading a book outside in the fresh air... even when its snowing!

I bought an oldie at Yellow Umbrella Books in Chatham, Cape Cod, Massachusetts – The Polar Express (its 30th Anniversary) because I think everyone needs a copy of this book so the bell will still tinkle for you.

At Provincetown, Cape Cod I came across a giraffe looking out for his cousin Zeraffa Giraffa in Africa. And also came across this lovely chantreuse outside the rather formidable-looking library in an otherwise rather colourful, hippie town.

In New York at the wonderful Books of Wonder, I discovered a Jackie Morris sticking out from the laden shelves and a copy of Jane Ray's and my The Glassmaker’s Daughter. (joy and wonder)

So all in all, a total mix of books both from the States and the UK, and a great showing of story leaning away from the typical towards the mysterious and the unexpected. So in the tradition of The Polar Express, may you still be hearing that bell tinkle.
Twitter: @dihofmeyr
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Latest book: TIGER WALK illustrated by Jesse Hodgson and published by Otter-Barry Books


Gwen Grant said...

A brilliant review and much appreciated.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Thanks Gwen. It was a lovely to duck into every bookshop I saw! A real indulgence.