So what was I to choose as the very first book to review as part of my series Reading Round Europe? I wanted to choose a book that I thought was really very special indeed and a book that would be new to most of you. I wanted to find a book that I felt was different, fresh and exciting, and one with real meaning for me. So what to choose…
Well fortunately for me, I have the most wonderful source of recommendations and suggestions – you.
Sophie signed up at the very last minute. I remember thinking… oh no! I’ve just sorted everyone out, all swaps are arranged, and here’s another one… So I wrote to Sophie and said that I’d be happy to swap with her. When she wrote back “What a challenge !!! Not easy to make a good choice when your partner family is the organizer” I had to smile
But goodness me, Sophie rose to the challenge and came up with a terrific book, a book that has really enriched our lives, that we’ve poured over, talked about, got lost in, that’s made us giggle, that we’ve learned things from… in short an amazing book. AND that book happens to be from Finland… So today I bring you It’s snowing in Animal Town / Il neige dans la ville des animaux / Elainten kaupungissa sataa lunta by Hannamari Ruohonen.
It’s Snowing in Animal Town is a book without words, and the truth is, I used to be slightly scared of wordless picture books. They can seem like a lot of work when I’m tired and the kids are asking question after question about what they can see, but I think It’s Snowing in Animal Town may well have succeeded in banishing my fears for good.
For a start, there’s not a single story in this book.
No, rather, there are multiple sorties waiting to be uncovered and linked up in all sorts of different ways.
The book consists of 11 double page spreads showing different scenes from life during winter in Animal Town: from the events taking place inside a swimming pool, to the fun being had visiting a toy shop, from the hustle and bustle of arrivals and departures at a railway station to life on a hospital ward. Each scene is populated with many of the same characters – members of different animal families, including Annele Lama, Jan Lion, Milo Pig and Hanna Monkey, all going about their lives meeting with both mishaps and joy, in the run up to Christmas.
This description might remind you of the work of Richard Scarry, – and if you like his books you should certainly look out his one – but Ruohonen’s work is certainly no Scarry pastiche.
Her animal characters quickly become the reader’s friends – but not because they look adorable and cute. In fact there is something of the grotesque about them, (although not in the repulsive sense, but in the sense there is something askew or slightly distorted about them), which in turn gives a fresh, original look and feel to Ruohonen illustrations. No, the animals become friends because of the stories you discover and invent about them with every turn of the page.
The tableaux are each so full of detailed that even though we’ve “read” the book maybe 15 or more times, we’re still discovering new details on each reading – most recently the little gnome with his list who appears mysteriously on many (maybe all?) pages.
And children, in my experience of my own and also of friends’, are experts when it comes to noticing the smallest of details in pictures. It’s a skill my kids have which never ceases to amaze me and which puts them in control of building, telling, and retelling the stories woven within It’s Snowing in Animal Town.
I’ve found myself being led by them through the book – they dictate the speed at which the pages are turned, not me (as is usually the case when there are words to read and a set narrative to follow), and they delight in making the connections that I’ve missed because I haven’t noticed the relevant detail (such as why a given character is in hospital – because of an accident on an earlier page).
And yes of course I get asked lots and lots of questions, and yes, this isn’t perhaps the book I choose to read last thing at night (it might take an hour before the book would be put down!), but I’ve experienced the book’s wordlessness as empowering, inspiring and full of richness in a way that I hadn’t expected from a book with no clear beginning, middle and end set down in a stream of words.
Il neige dans la ville des animaux : *** (3 stars)
NB It’s Snowing in Animal Town has not yet been published in English – but translations (which actually means having a translated title and a couple of paragraphs inside the first page of the book introducing some of the characters who populate the town) are available via Amazon.fr in French and you can also buy the original Finnish. Please be reassured, it poses no difficulties at all having the book in a language other than English, for the language of the title makes no difference to the book’s “readability” and the enjoyment you and your kids will receive from it. That said, if you are an English language publisher of kids’ books this is a book you really ought to get the rights to!
Tomorrow I’ll be writing up the playful activities we got up to alongside reading this wonderful book and on Friday I’ve an interview with Hannamari Ruohonen – hope to see you there!