When describing Oliver Jeffers’ work, I tend to use words like whimsical, charming, clever, and sweet. His latest book, The Heart and the Bottle, surpasses his previous work. It belongs to an entirely different stratum of picture book, one described with words like powerful, poignant, raw, sophisticated.
How can something be both raw and sophisticated? Raw is how I felt as I experienced the book, as though my own heart was exposed and aching for the girl in the story. The emotion in this book doesn’t just inform the story, it IS the story.
A little girl delights in the wonders of the world, sharing them with an older male figure, presumably her father. Together they explore the beach, read stories, and admire her drawings, until one day the girl rushes home to find an empty chair where her father once sat. The girl puts her heart in a bottle to keep it safe and finds that she doesn’t think about the world anymore. Years pass, the girl grows into a young woman, and she meets another girl on the same beach she explored with her father. This little girl still asks questions about the sea and the stars. The young woman finds she is unable to answer these questions without her heart, and so attempts to retrieve it from the bottle. But it is only with the help of the girl that she is able to rescue her heart and revive her wonder in the world. In the end, it is only the bottle that is empty.
I have always thought that Oliver Jeffers was a smart artist, but now I also believe him to be wise. The Heart and the Bottle officially catapults him into the upper echelons of picture book mastery, with such sage artists as Cynthia Rylant, Jane Yolen, and Tomie dePaola.
The sophistication of the book lies in Jeffers’ sublime use of images. The narrative revolves around a few basic images: a girl, a chair, a heart, a bottle. Each of these images is loaded with meaning, to the point of becoming metaphorical. The chair is first occupied by the male figure, who reads to the girl and shares in her curiosity. When the chair is empty, we recognise the enormous loss of the man, but also wonder, in the girl’s life. When it is occupied once again, it is by the girl, who is now taking on the role of her father and providing meaning and wonder to yet another young girl. Visually, the chair is red and overstuffed, making it appear a bit lumpy and misshapen- it is hard not to draw parallels between the chair and the heart, which is also red and oddly shaped.
One of the heartbreaking aspects of the book is that once the girl realizes she needs her heart, she can’t remember how to retrieve it; in the end, it is the other girl who retrieves it for her. What a beautiful message, that sometimes we need other people to learn to love and life fully again.
The text is this book is spare and carefully chosen. Certain words and phrases are repeated, such as sea, stars, curious, wonder, and world, creating a nice, round shape to the story. There is no dialogue, no direct expressions of grief, or even acknowledgement of death. Jeffers has left room for the reader to infer and imagine. In a book dealing with grief, this is extremely important. It allows children (and adults) to fill in the story according to their own experience or understanding of grief. In this manner the reader is able to engage at their own level, never stepping into territory he or she is not emotionally ready to handle. After all, an empty chair can mean many things.
The Heart and the Bottle feels like a poem- spare language, evocative imagery, raw emotion. A quiet tour-de-force from the always impressive Jeffers. Run, don’t walk, to your nearest (independent) bookstore and purchase The Heart and the Bottle for your collection. Available now from those wise folks at HarperCollins.