Monday, 24 September 2012

The Journey Home, by Frann Preston-Gannon

I really loved Frann Preston-Gannon's big, bold illustrations in The Journey Home, but I really, really disliked the story, and thought it was completely inappropriate for a picture book.

“This beautifully illustrated story has a powerful message of conservation,” it says on the back. In actuality, the idea of conservation is not mentioned or conveyed at all, as the storyline is more one of destruction and devastation than one of mending things.

Polar Bear’s ice is melting. He cannot stay and so he decides to swim off in search of a new home. Luckily, he soon finds a little boat. The little boat takes him to a big city belching out fumes, where he rescues a panda; a deforested jungle, where he rescues an orangutan; and a plain, where he rescues an elephant being hunted for ivory. A big storm hits and they are tossed around in the waves and carried away. Eventually the little boat wash up on a little island, and they are greeted by a dodo, who tells the stranded animals that they’ll be able to go home - but only “when the trees grow back and when the ice returns and when the cities stop getting bigger and when the hunting stops.”

My immediate reaction is that - aside from being really depressing - these are ideas that are too large for toddlers to comprehend. I think children of this age are too young to have such significant issues discussed with them. Toddlerdom is a period of early learning and play and investigation, not a period where they should be told about the woes of world. Of course children should be introduced to environmental issues, just as they should be introduced to science and history and politics, but to do so in a picture book is completely inappropriate. Picture books such as The Journey Home can barely begin to properly convey the real problems of the environment. Simply skirting the edge of the issue, as this book does, is not going to educate anyone. This is not a conservation message; it merely highlights a couple of issues whilst failing to mention any human responsibilities, or the human options to prevent or reduce the issues.

And sending the animals to live with a dodo? Are the animals supposed to be dead? Extinct? Will such young readers understand the concept of an extinct creature and what the dodo represents? While I suppose the book could be used to introduce environmental concepts to older children, for those children it will still be too vague and essentially meaningless because it fails to cover the topics in a serious and realistic manner.

1 comment:

  1. I managed to read a review copy of this book at our magazine the other day. I'm not the mag's children's book reviewer, but I do have small children (I've not read it to my children yet because I don't have my own copy), and have to say I find myself disagreeing with your assessment of its worth (its words) completely.

    You say "…the idea of conservation is not mentioned or conveyed at all". Conservation is not mentioned explicitly, no (why should it have been?), but conservation's urgent need is implied via the dire warning of the text and illustrations, by its beautiful and fearful metaphor. Indeed the metaphor of the dodo at the end I thought was a stroke of genius.

    This certainly conveyed to me (and surely it could to 'toddlers' via discussion with their carers, via a child's inherent and open imagination) the idea of the importance of conservation before it's too late (presuming it's not already too late!).

    It's depressing, yes. But then, so is the state of the planet and humanity's deadly impact upon it. Should we be protecting children, no matter what their age, from this information? I don't think we should at all. After all, it's their inheritance. It's their future. Surely such ideas implanted young could motivate towards practical engagement with conservation rather than a bleak defeatism. After all, this book wouldn't, hopefully, be working in isolation as a text, but be part of a whole for a young child's reading experience, which would help give it context and elegant, urgent and necessary meaning.

    On the issue of whether 'toddlers' should be introduced at all to 'depressing' information, I think you are being profoundly presumptuous, if not censorious, thinking such things can't be brought into a child's consciousness from an early age. Sendak's Outside Over There [ ], with its horrific faceless hooded child kidnappers. Gulp. John Burningham's [ ] fabulous and moving Grandpa [ ] introduces the idea of death and loss into a young child's mind. Suess's The Lorax brings forth magically issues of destruction, redemption and hopeful conservation with illustrative and textual wonder, although some have deemed that "gloomy" and doubted it was good for young children. And so on…

    [Incidentally, I read this on Nature News Blog ( ) the other day:
    'Since 1995, Cross River gorillas have lost 59% of their habitat; Eastern Gorillas have lost 52%; and western gorillas have faced a 31% loss.' Now that's depressing. ]

    I think The Journey Home is a very important and necessary book. I hope it does well. I thank the author for creating something real and magical, something terribly sad, yet at the same time something ultimately hopeful - if only we heed its warning. Can't wait to read it to my little ones.