Written and Illustrated by Dan Santat
Roaring Brook Press, 2017
My name is Humpty Dumpty.
The plot in a nutshell: Humpty Dumpty talks about the aftermath of his fall.
Humpty Dumpty explains that the big fall that made him famous was just an accident that changed his life. Yes, he was eventually put back together again, but the experience left him with a fear of heights that had a major impact on him. Now, whenever he walks past the wall, he thinks about how much he misses being up there, watching the birds and looking at the city below. But now that he knows how easy accidents can be, he just can’t bring himself to try it. He watches the birds from the ground, but it isn’t the same. He tries making paper airplanes and sending them flying into the air, which gives him a sense of happiness. Then, unfortunately, his airplane lands on the top of the wall and, although he almost gives up and leaves it, he resolves to climb that wall and get it back. Nervous and scared, he climbs higher and higher until he reaches the top. And as he celebrates this victory, his eggshell cracks and a beautiful golden bird emerges and flies away.
I am a sucker for new stories that build on older stories, especially when they give them a fun and interesting twist in perspective. The earliest version of Humpty Dumpty goes back to 1797 and is one of those Mother Goose rhymes that pretty much everyone knows. But author/illustrator Dan Santat takes his story to a whole new place here, bringing in the issues of dealing with the aftermath of a traumatic experience and being afraid of failure. By giving him a love of birds, we have a reason for him to be up on the wall and to want to get back up there again. Then having him literally break out of his shell at the end is so perfectly wonderful that I got a little misty-eyed. By conquering his fear, he becomes who he has been meant to be all along.
The illustrations bring all the emotions to this story, showing us a character who is physically and mentally broken. We go on this journey with him, seeing all the ways in which the fall has left him scarred and unable to do all the things he wants to do, which is so easy to relate to real life. Mr. Santat tells the story that this book is dedicated to his wife, who struggled with anxiety and post-partum depression, making her approach life in much the same way as Humpty Dumpty does here, tailoring her life to avoid fear. She sought help that let her become her best self again and he says this book is a love letter to her and the courage she showed in conquering her fears. Seen through that filter, it’s an even more meaningful and beautiful story.
And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that, as the book’s final page reminds us, ‘life begins when you get back up.’