CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 35. . . .May 9, 2014
Joseph Fipps is the title of a picture book that centres on an animated, perhaps even kinetic, day in the life of an imaginative, busy, and precocious pre-schooler. Long before we hear Joseph’s voice in the text, the illustrator makes use of the paratext (Genette, 1991) to inform readers about Joseph and the back story that shapes his day at home with his mother. Therefore, from the beginning, it is Godbout’s luscious and emotive pencil crayon illustrations that carry this newly translated contribution from the Quebec-born artist. The soft, muted-coloured illustrations introduced in eight pages of paratext, and found throughout the book, hold considerable affective power that will be appreciated by children and adults alike. The extensive paratext in this unique, photo-album and filmic-like work offers multiple opportunities for picture reading.
Readers enter the text via a double-page spread in which Joseph is in motion and engaged in moving a stool to a bookshelf in his family’s living room as his cat looks on. The next double- page spread depicts the titular character retrieving a book from a shelf with one hand while holding his teddy bear with the other. The following scene shows the reaction of Joseph’s saucer-eyed cat to the mishap that has befallen the protagonist—he has knocked over a potted plant. This gives way to a scene that foregrounds the frightened boy fleeing the site of the accident with his bow-tied teddy-bear in tow and against a background of dark colours (a męlée of muted russets, mauves, and browns with hints of green) that aptly captures the tension and anxiety enveloping Joseph. The strong reactions of cat and of Joseph suggest that he has a history of mishaps. This visual information establishes the background, the context readers need in order to understand the ensuing story.
The visual narrative of the paratext ends its solo journey after the accident and leads to the first deployment of verbal cues and marriage of text and images that define picture books. The first words of the text are a strong verbal reproach from the young protagonist against objectification by adults in favour of the pronunciation and affirmation of his subjectivity. Here is Joseph’s reproach.
Through the above reproach, Joseph expresses his frustration with an ongoing negative practice by the powerful adults in his life. To push-back, to resist this name-calling (the use of the moniker “Gremlin”), the brown-haired and crestfallen child is seen in a pose of defiance, clutching his equally brown teddy to his chest while looking out directly at the reader. He plaintively, and with some confidence, announces who he is: “My name is Joseph Fipps!” He does not perceive himself as a “gremlin.”
At five years of age, Joseph has a voice, is aware of his identity and wants to be recognized for who is and not his past behaviour—not for the small accidents that eventuate as he goes about the business of exploring his world to satisfy his interests. He does not want to be known as a “Gremlin”--a mythological creature typically presented as mischievous and mechanically oriented, with a special preference for aeroplanes. At the very least, Joseph wants to name himself. He would prefer to be called “Griffin”—“an imaginary animal with the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion.” The power and beauty of flight is attractive to Joseph, and he dreams of flying around in the open skies if he were a griffin. I imagine that many children will empathize with Joseph’s predicament and are likely to align themselves with the unhappy focalizer they meet in the book.
Following the youngster’s reproach, the text and images tell an interesting but rather discontinuous narrative that invokes the rich, real as well as imaginary world of a five-year-old whose mind and body are in constant motion. From Joseph’s wishing he were a Griffin, to telling us where he lives, all about his favourite his chestnut tree, and attempting to climb a ladder to see baby birds, readers come to know Joseph’s varied interests and the rapidity of his decision-making. Also, readers witness the inventiveness, creative play, and loneliness that are often part of the world of preschoolers when parents and guardians are not available for play.
Although Joseph’s mother, a symbol of surveillance, authority, control and discipline, is not available for play, she is not very far. She sees Joseph through the window, and before he succeeds in climbing the ladder, she is heard saying, “Leave that ladder alone and come inside right now!” A dejected Joseph worries about being “scolded” and points out that his “Mommy’s voice is always different when she’s angry!”
The conflict, the drama of the narrative intensifies as Joseph enters the house and attempts to explain—rather defend himself to his watchful, yet caring mother. The exchange between mother and child exposes what appears to be a familiar performance between them. Concern for his well-being leads the mother to reprimand and regulate Joseph’s behaviour through labelling. Angered by such labelling and parental control over his actions—his freedom, Joseph retaliates with his own name-calling and labelling. This is behaviour he has likely picked up from his mother. Joseph hits back with, “You always say ‘no’! I can never do anything. You’re mean and I want another mommy.” The illustrator effectively captures the ruddy-cheeked, finger-pointing, and accusing Joseph as he hurls back a hurtful salvo at his mother. On one side of the double-page spread that symbolically depicts the separation between the squabbling parties, the reader sees an out-of control Joseph, and on the other, a partial view of the mother—her pleated skirt that is ruffled by the startled and saucer-eyed cat who has taken refuge there, away from the angry boy.
Seeing and hearing her angered son, the mother adopts a somewhat sterner stance and suggests that a “walrus mommy” who “lives on the banks of the North Pole” might be willing to take Joseph. The next pages presents readers with a close-up of a visibly shaken and fearful Joseph as he begins to consider what it would be like to see a walrus and have a walrus mommy. Seeing his fright and feeling peeved, the mother utilizes the moment to further scold Joseph, and she admonishes him to “think things over” because she has had “just about enough of [his] silliness.”
As a result of such maternal reproval, Joseph is overwhelmed, turns from his mother and runs outside “to sulk” by the banks of the river that runs right by the chestnut tree”—his place of solace and for thinking when he is “filled up with feelings.” The skills of the illustrator are very visible in the Bill Peet-like images used. The verbal and visual cues are in perfect synchronicity as the sad, young boy, lays on his belly underneath a whistling willow, with elbows on the ground and his hands cupping his face. Safely positioned on the river bank, Joseph stares solemnly at the “little waves that ripple the water.” Though very well-done, this scene may offer consternation to some parents who, with some justification, might be concerned about the wisdom of placing the five-year-old on the banks of a river given our collective fears about children and water safety. (Should such concerns arise, the way to handle it is through discussion and dialogue using a problem-posing and problem-solving approach between adults and children).
From his safe perch on the river banks, Joseph begins to wonder, to fantasize about the world of walruses introduced earlier during his mother’s reproval. The boy’s active and very creative imagination takes over. From riverbanks of grass and trees, Joseph moves to one of water and ice. The creators of this lengthy picture book use 15 pages to undrape Joseph’s fantasises about the polar landscape of an imagined walwarian world of icebergs, deftly rendered with a combination of blue, purple, and white pencil crayons.
Joseph does not enter this imaginative world alone; he brings along a favourite creature he has encountered in the books of his library. He brings along a powerful griffin and other protective resources generated in his desired fantasy world—a maternal figure who is friendly, not angry. In his river-bank reverie, he says, “If I were a griffin with my lion’s fur, I’d never get cold. If I were a griffin, I’d scare the polar bears with my pointed claws.” While he continues to fantasize, Joseph imagines being met and welcomed by an enormous animal (a walrus) who refers to him as “little griffin.”
As a griffin, Joseph is not afraid, even as he approaches an imaginary and friendly “Mommy Walrus” and climbs on her back. Imagining himself as Joseph Griffin, he rides comfortably on the “walrus’ back” as he journeys to meet her long-tusked babies “making holes in the ice …” Signalling the passage of time, the friendly “Mommy Walrus” suggests that Joseph can spend the night with them without being afraid. The fantasized invitation to spend the night acts as a device to nudge Joseph back into the real, material world. He feels cold and realizes that he does not “have the fur of a griffin to keep [him] warm and he does not have “wings to fly home.” Joseph is forlorn. His fantasises fade. He exits the walwarian world and re-enters the real one where he acknowledges that he is Joseph, a five-year-old who is a “little boy, not a griffin.” The sun begins to set on river banks of the polar world …
From his imaginative journey, Joseph returns to a familiar, material world—river banks of grass and trees—in which he hears chirping baby birds from his beloved chestnut tree. Calmer, no longer angry, Joseph hears his mother calling his name; he turns exuberantly toward the direction of her voice while the family cat gently paws, nudges him. His mother informs him that he has “sulked enough.” No longer sulking, he rushes home to his mother and grabs her in loving and powerful embrace that fans the bottom of her pleated skirt. She is not as stern or as stiff as she was earlier when they squabbled. Joseph entreats her to join him by “ice banks” to see “Mommy Walrus.”
With his mother’s “eyebrows up really high and her mouth open”, Joseph is not sure his mother understands “a word” he is saying but she, no longer enervated, willingly allows her son to lead her out of the house toward the world of his curiosities and queries—one of them being the real baby birds in the chestnut tree. And it is here, on the penultimate page, that readers get their first, full glimpse of Joseph’s mother. She is smiling. Like her son, she is in motion and is now ready to join him in childhood play and exploration—visiting the baby birds in the chestnut tree. A satisfying conclusion to special book.
Joseph Fipps is a skillfully and attractively illustrated picture book reminiscent of children’s works by Bill Peet (1966, 1970, 1977, 1978) and Phillip D. Eastman (1960). It has the feel of history (e.g., the artistic style alluded to and evoked), but it fits comfortably in the genre of contemporary realism. Nadine Robert and Genevičve Godbout have created a worthwhile work that uses exemplary illustrations and believable text to tell a story of how a child and his mother rub-up against each other throughout a day when the parent was not available for play. Naturalism and realism are a part of this book and can be seen when the mother sought to place restrictions on the child’s desire to explore his material world without thinking through the implications of his actions and wishes. The book draws attention to the real and imaginary worlds of a child and illustrates how a word from a parent/adult or an image from a book (e.g. a griffin) can spur the rich fantasy life of such a child.
Godbout’s stylized, arresting and enjoyable illustrations alone are enough to recommend this unique work, but the text of the book nicely complements the art in a narrative that is noteworthy for its exploration of anger between mother and son, feelings, emotion regulation, children’s voice in childhood, and the affirmation of enduring love that can withstand the hurt of name-calling/labelling, verbal reproach and the frustrations of childhood desires. The characterizations, plot and tone of the book make it a good choice to launch conversations about how a parent/care-giver and a child can envision being together and speaking to each other when enmeshed in anger and disappointment, and about the use of dialogue to negotiate wants and desires, and positive relationships. Joseph Fipps is a good choice for homes, day-care centres, schools, and public libraries where opportunities for guided reading and joint meaning-making between adults and children are present.
Dr. Barbara McNeil teaches in the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina in Regina, SK.
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