Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Heart and the Bottle

Written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers

Philomel Books, 2010

$17.99, ages 4 and up, 32 pages

When the one person who understands her most passes away, a girl closes her heart up in a bottle so it can't be hurt anymore, only to realize years later that life is too empty without it.

As you read Jeffers's amazing story, you feel the girl's heart filling with joy, then draining with sadness and finally finding solace as she navigates through the pain of loss to find a way to start over.

Achingly beautiful and a must for any child or adult confronting grief, the story opens with the girl at the happiest she can be, devouring every magical thing about life, and sharing her excitement with an aging man who we assume is her grandpa.

The man with the cane is always available to her, watching patiently as she marvels at a flower in the woods and listening as she explodes with thoughts of swimming with a whale or wonders aloud whether a boat could slide off the earth into the universe.

On one page, the man sits in his big armchair, fielding the questions that seem to burst out of her, and on another, he lays beside her under a canopy of stars, pointing to the big dipper as the girl imagines a shooting star is a flaming bee streaking across the sky.

At times, no words pass between them. They just are -- the man in a row boat and the girl floating nearby on her back in the water, taking in the wonders around them.

Then one day, the girl draws a picture of the whale she longs to swim with and races over to the big chair to share it with the man, but the chair is empty.

There is a permanence to the emptiness and she knows the man has passed away.

The girl sits motionless, staring at the chair as the sky outside fades to night and only a stream of moonlight fills the room. The picture lays forgotten on the floor behind her.

Unsure of how to go on, the girl withdraws within herself, closing her heart up in a bottle to keep it safe.

Though her heart is never far from her (the bottle hangs around her neck), it is far enough that she doesn't have to feel anything and for awhile this seems to work for her.

But in truth the girl has lost more than she realizes.

Now grown, she no longer notices the stars or the sea, or much of anything except the bottle, which has grown heavy and awkward around her neck. Yet she accepts the burden because she thinks her heart is safe.

Then one day the woman happens along a little girl on the beach building a castle out of sand. The little girl wonders aloud if an elephant could swim in the sea and suddenly it occurs to the woman what she must do.

Jeffers's book pulls you in, but never overwhelms you with sadness; it leaves you feeling that you too can get through the worst and continue on.

His art style, so spare and gentle, tempers the sorrow that unfolds, while the symbolism in the book resonates -- the empty chair in a darkening room, the bottle that protects the girl's heart from being hurt anymore.

Jeffers seems to want us to know from the very start that this is a book for everyone, describing the girl as being "much like any other" on the first page.

A good companion to Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake's Sad Book, The Heart and the Bottle is for anyone who has felt the loss of someone dear and anyone who has yet to feel grief but may need help one day finding her way back.

Don't miss the book trailer below of Jeffers talking about his artwork, previous books and the origins of The Heart and the Bottle, which will be featured in the independent film This Beautiful Fantastic, scheduled to begin filming this year.

Other wonderful books by Jeffers include The Way Back Home, The Incredible Book Eating Boy and Lost and Found.

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