Pits of despair and intense euphoria feel wildly different, although both can disconnect us from reality. Two new picture books, one about the lowest low and one about the highest high, examine how easy it is to lose oneself in the midst of overpowering emotions.
In Geneviève Godbout’s author-illustrator debut, What’s Up, Maloo?, an ungendered kangaroo experiences a dramatic mood shift, switching from happy hopping to despondent near-paralysis in just three pages. A friendly wallaby, crocodile, and koala try offering pick-me-ups to no avail. Maloo continues on for “Ten steps … one hundred steps … one thousand steps …” before making a trepidatious hop and receiving a kind-hearted boost of support from friends, in the form of an improvised trampoline.
To the very young reader, unfamiliar with depression, this book will be a bit of mystery. What is wrong with this kangaroo and why? Rather than offer direct answers in the text, Godbout provides relatability in her illustrations. Maloo is drawn as so much more than sad, appearing dejected, burdened, vacant, and listless. At one point, Maloo is pictured flopped over, seemingly unbothered by being stuck in what appears to be a very uncomfortable reverse somersault. But amid this real pain, a quiet warmth and hope peeks through in the soft, buttery texture of pastels and coloured pencils, the brightness of Maloo’s yellow overalls and the landscape’s pink flowers, and the personalized font used for Godbout’s hand lettering. Be it a clinical depression, funk, fog, slump, or just a bad day, Godbout leaves room for readers to interpret Maloo’s story in a way that resonates with their own experience or with that of someone they know.
Moving from a deflated to an inflated sense of self, Cary Fagan’s fable about the constructs of power also stars a mammal that is out of sorts, though for very different reasons.
King Mouse opens with several crowns tumbling out of a wagon pulled behind a human’s bicycle. A mouse soon finds one of the crowns and puts it on. When a bear asks, “Are you a king?” the mouse recognizes his opportunity. Soon many animals are catering to the rodent’s whims, until the other crowns are discovered and King Mouse’s reign is cut short.
Fagan’s text is timeless and beautifully compact, like a 21st-century Aesop for an era when many power structures seem random. The moral is extended when, in the end, King Mouse realizes that the bear is the only animal without a crown. The mouse then weaves one from flowers and gains a true friend, rather than a blindly loyal minion.
It’s fitting that King Mouse marks the picture-book debut of Calgary artist Dena Seiferling, who seems destined to join the ranks of Canadian illustrator royalty. Working only with graphite and subtle digital coloration, Seiferling creates an iconic character in King Mouse that is at once winsome and highly expressive but also arrogant, cranky, self-possessed, and mildly sinister. The close-up of the mouse’s face when he first dons the crown is equal parts absurd and unmistakably dark: as his slightly asymmetrical eyes shine, a tight-lipped grin spreads beneath a tiny pink nose, and spindly arms hold up his new circlet of power. Seiferling also has an amazing comedic gift, placing almost every animal character on two legs so they can teeter about like crazed toddlers. Each page is riotous and breathtaking.
What’s Up, Maloo? and King Mouse show us that isolation is dangerous when life gets intense, and that keeping others close can help us find the way back to good.