Written and Illustrated by Oliver Jeffers
Philomel Books, 2010
Once there was a girl, much like any other, whose head was filled with all the curiosities of the world.
The plot in a nutshell: A girl responds to loss by locking her heart away
The girl spends a lot of time with her grandfather and he helps her understand the world around her. We see them looking at the stars together, swimming in the ocean and flying a kite on the shore. One day, she colors a picture and takes it to him and his chair is empty. In order to keep from being hurt again in the future, she puts her heart in a bottle and hangs it around her neck. She forgets about the stars and the sea and everything she cares about. She grows up and the bottle gets heavy, but her heart stays safe. Then she meets a young girl who is as curious as she was, asking questions that she should know how to answer, but she finds she can’t answer without her heart. She tries to get it out of the bottle, but can’t find a way. The bottle rolls down the beach to the little girl, who easily opens it and gives it to the older girl. She puts it back and sits in her grandfather’s chair, joyfully reading and discovering the world again.
Bookshelf favorite Oliver Jeffers throws us a curveball with this amazingly poignant book that speaks to anyone who has ever lost a loved one and wondered how they’d ever feel like themselves again. The book is unclear whether or not the man pictured is her father or grandfather, but I assumed grandfather because he seemed considerably older. The fact that it’s left vague makes the book more relatable for any type of loss. I love that the girl’s sense of wonder is tied to being vulnerable and keeping her heart open, because I believe that’s true. As soon as you care about anything, you open yourself up to whatever it has in store for you, whether it’s good or bad.
Although the book packs an emotional wallop, Mr. Jeffers’ trademark sense of humor is still on board. On the acknowledgements page, he states that the artwork for the book was “made from all sorts of stuff” and he goes on to list several different types of media and claims that there may be oil paint, but it “might have been an accident.” The characters here are adorably drawn with his signature stick legs and minimal facial features, but they are still endearing and individual. The ending is perfectly wonderful, bringing the story full circle as the curious little girl becomes the adult who fosters that curiosity in someone else. An absolutely beautiful story.
And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that keeping your heart open allows you to experience hurt, but it is also the only way to experience joy, discovery and love.