A Quick Visit with Mini Grey (Including an Exclusive American Sneak Peek—I think so anyway—of Jim)

h1 December 17th, 2009 by jules

(Click to enlarge.)

It seems hardly anyone is around now, and folks are very busy this time of year, but I’m here once again this week, for whomever might be lurking, to check in with British author/illustrator—and one of my Most Favorites Ever—Mini Grey. Mini visited 7-Imp in October of last year, and I’ve been following her book releases this year as well. First off in 2009, there was Egg Drop, released by Knopf Books for Young Readers in July and originally published in Great Britain in 2002. In fact, as you’ll see below, it was Mini’s first picture book release. More on that in a sec.

Let’s start with her very most recent illustrated title, not even out in the States yet, Hilaire Belloc’s classic cautionary tale of a poem, originally written in 1907, Jim (Who Ran Away from His Nurse and Was Eaten by a Lion). It was released in October of this year in the UK by Jonathan Cape/Random House, and I’ve actually got a copy in hand, though it’s not available here on this side of the pond, as they say.

As you can see on the cover there, you’ve been warned: “Contains a dangerous beast and a miserable end.” If this book had existed when Adrienne Furness and I composed our “Straight Talk About the Food Chain” / Slightly Demented Picture Books post, also one of my Most Favorites Ever, boy howdy and howdy boy, this would have been at the top of our protagonists-getting-eaten list. As Adrienne said in that post, cautionary tales make great sense to kids, though some parents often get squirmy over the violence. This very tongue-in-cheek, black-humored poem, as you can read here in its entirety, is one of Belloc’s no-holds-barred humorous cautionary tales. (Think Roald Dahl for tone.) He wrote many, which were later illustrated by Edward Gorey, and they were said to be intended for children — but most appreciated, in all their satire, by the grown-ups around them.

Mini seems to have delighted in illustrating the classic poem, and she doesn’t hold back. See what I mean? (Click to enlarge each spread.)

“YOU KNOW—at least you ought to know / For I have often told you so— /
That Children never are allowed / To leave their Nurses in a Crowd”

“Now this was Jim’s especial Foible, / He ran away when he was able, /
And on this inauspicious day / He slipped his hand and ran away!”

“He hadn’t gone a yard when—BANG! / With open Jaws, a Lion sprang, /
And hungrily began to eat / The Boy: beginning at his feet.”

“The Honest Keeper heard his cry, / Though very fat he almost ran / To help the little gentleman. / ‘Ponto!’ he ordered as he came / (For Ponto was the Lion’s name), / ‘Ponto!’ he cried, with angry Frown, / ‘Let go, Sir! Down, Sir! Put it down!’ / The Lion made a sudden Stop, / He let the Dainty Morsel drop, / And slunk reluctant to his Cage, / Snarling with Disappointed Rage. / But when he bent him over Jim, / The Honest Keeper’s Eyes were dim. / The Lion having reached his Head, /
The Miserable Boy was dead!”

Yes, you’re seeing there the Lion eating his flesh, and you’re also seeing poor Jim’s disembodied head. I don’t know how folks in the UK have responded to this, but here in the States—or, okay, in the South; I can only speak for where I live—I can already hear lots of parents flat-out freaking out. Don’t fret, though. Well, I can’t tell another parent what to do, nor would I ever even consider it, but I can say that my own children have asked for repeated readings. And that they delight in it. As Mini put it here, too (close readers will notice many of her books are about death in one way or another, or—if you’re Publishers Weekly—“Grey specializes in pathos around inanimate objects”), “picture books are a great place for children to rehearse these big questions.” Word. Word up.

The book also includes a wonderful pop-out spread (the one above of the Lion clawing the boy), a big fold-out map of the zoo (you’ll see below that Mini wanted the book to be full of “pointless rules and regulations,” and many of them are included in this very funny map of the zoo), and some lift-the-flap moments. For example, the spread below folds out from the spread which opens this post, and the ham there is a flap that lifts up (“slices of delicious Ham”), not to mention the chocolate (“with pink inside”). It’s a sturdy, interactive, well-constructed book.

(Click to enlarge.)

The final endpapers show you how very well Mini gets that Belloc’s tongue is placed firmly in his cheek. You’ve just got to click on this to enlarge the spread and read the warnings. (“Children should be eaten and not heard,” for one.)

The lion’s claw marks on the wall so entirely take my mind to Emily Gravett’s Wolves, which is a good thing.

Here are some of Mini’s very first sketch pages for this title. “When I started reading through Belloc’s poem, I realised it was a gift and absolutely jam-packed with things screaming to be drawn — tea, cakes, jam, etc. etc., so I just drew my way through it,” she told me. “I wanted Jim to be a really bossy book, full of pointless rules and regulations. The Hilaire Belloc poem is a bit subversive — pretending to be instructive and educational but really an excuse for a bloodbath. The tortoise sketch is a real tortoise at the zoo.”

(Click to enlarge all sketches.)

* * * * * * *

As for Egg Drop, what Publishers Weekly called a “poignant nonsense tale,” Grey brings us a Humpty-Dumpty-esque tale of an egg who longs to fly. Yes, I said an egg who longs to fly. (You can click on all these spreads and sketches to enlarge.)

“Looking at it now, the pictures were very rough and ready,” Mini told me. “I was thinking about the Humpty rhyme and did a whole load of rough sketches about the Humpty predicament, and one of them showed the egg falling through the sky but exhilarated”:

But things go as well as you might expect for a flying egg.

Sketch for the spread in which attempts are made to put the Egg back together again,
“but nothing really worked and shells don’t heal.”

“The question was,” Mini said, “why was an egg up on a high wall? And, I thought, perhaps it was obsessed with being able to fly, and in its egg rush moment, it thinks it is flying. Then I realised a chicken could tell the story — the tragic voice of its mother, and if it had just waited, flight could have been a possibility”:

“{This sketch and final spread} show how my editor asked me to put a small smile of the yolk of the dead egg at the end. (I did fry up an egg to draw for this final picture, and after I’d drawn it I put it to one side. Later I discovered the egg with its yolk entirely missing. Bonzetta the cat was licking her lips. But I’m with her on the style of egg-eating — what is the point of eating egg white? (Unless it is in form of meringue).”

School Library Journal called Egg Drop “wonderfully subversive.” This is one of many reasons I’m very glad Mini Grey exists and makes picture books. They also describe the book as “delectably dark.” I get that. I do. But I’ll also be happy on the day when those books that Mini so perfectly describes as those places for children to rehearse the “big questions” aren’t considered so mystifying and “grim.” I say: Bring on the big questions.

* * * * * * *

JIM. Text copyright © 1907. Illustrations copyright © 2009 by Mini Grey. Published by Jonathan Cape Books/Random House, London. Illustrations used with permission of Mini Grey. All rights reserved.

EGG DROP. Copyright © 2002. First American Edition © 2009. Published by Random House, New York, NY. Illustrations used with permission of Mini Grey. All rights reserved.

12 comments to “A Quick Visit with Mini Grey (Including an Exclusive American Sneak Peek—I think so anyway—of Jim)”

  1. Well I’m from the UK, and, similarly to you, my review copy went down well with my son. Even if he cuddled a bit closer through its readings.

    Our take on it is here;


    Really enjoyed reading a Stateside take.

  2. Jules, like you, I’m hearing the sounds of crickets chirping everywhere this week. Which is a shame — 7-Imp’s had three MAJOR posts in the last few days!

    (Would have commented on the earlier ones, but I can read them only from home thanks to The Employer’s fershlugginer Internet-blockage filters (d*mn them for making me work!) — and until this morning, didn’t have time to comment. But when I saw Mini Grey in the post’s title…)

    The spreads from Jim just cracked, me, UP. Of course I’ve no small children to give me second thoughts, but I don’t think I’d have had them (the thoughts, not the kids) even if I’d heard little feet pitter-pattering to read this post over my shoulder. 🙂 Anybody who’s ever watched a little kid dismember an insect or action figure and, in the next second, run to play on a sliding board, can’t really doubt that resilience in the face of horror is something which comes with the package (so to speak).

    You may or may not have noticed this: look closely at that 8-panel strip in which the Honest Keeper comes upon the lion with a bit of “dainty morsel” hanging from his jaw. See how the two four-panel sections appear to be lying on a newspaper?

    Well, I got to wondering about that newspaper. So, on a lark, I Googled a couple of the key phrases I could make out in the blow-up: “”my struggle with a tiger” and “it is now a good many years.”

    …and, oo-la-la, came to something called Donahoe’s Magazine, Volume III, January-July 1880. And there it was, right there on page 410.

    I’m sorry, I know this is twisted or something — but when I saw that engraving under the heading, OUR YOUNG FOLKS, I just burst out laughing.

    In that final endpaper, I REALLY want to know what the sampler at the top left said before the lion/tiger/whatever singled it out for destruction.

  3. Ian, thanks! I do wonder if the book will make it over here.

    JOHN! You expert sleuther you. I DID NOT NOTICE THAT! That is exceedingly cool to have noticed, and I enjoyed reading that. I can’t believe the boy wasn’t hurt, and I bet you he was seriously messed up after that.

  4. p.s. John, don’t EVEN worry about blog-commenting. I don’t know how anyone leaves consistent blog comments. I mean, I know people do, and I try to myself, but shoot…There are so many blogs in the world and so much to do in life. It’s hard.

    I had to go look up “fershlugginer.” That’s the new thing I learned today.

  5. Nothing against Egg Drop or Biscuit Bear, but Jim is so much gonna be my new favorite. Mercy….

  6. OMG! That ham spread and smiling egg yolk. LOVE Mini Grey’s work so much. The sketches were fascinating too. What a treat. Thanks!!

  7. So good to know that I’m not the only parent who finds this stuff MUCH more appropriate than snotty fairies and dithering ballerinas. Can hardly wait to read this with my 6 year old daughter, and then we can cackle uproariously, as we are wont to do!

  8. Oh, I must see JIM as soon as possible. Grey just keeps making these books that make me happy.

  9. Wonderful, enjoyable post Jules! Now, why do I let my google reader get backed up so and come to these things late?? I could have seen this bit of loveliness five days ago! Mini Grey is fabulous and Egg Drop is one of my Top 3 of 2009. Dark humor rules- loved it. I just HAVE to get my hands on a copy of Jim now!! Looks simply delicious 🙂

  10. […] Note: Remember when Mini Grey visited recently and showed us her contemporary picture book adaptation of Belloc’s “Jim, Who ran away […]

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