A child’s solitary pleasures
Bertolt Jacques Goldstyn Translated by Claudia Zoe Bedrick Enchanted Lion Books Ages four to nine
Spring may have technically sprung on March 20 this year, but for many Canadians the grass had barely riz by late April and trees were slow to bloom. So it’s easy to understand the eagerness with which the narrator of Jacques Goldstyn’s perfect little picture book, originally published in French as L’Arbragan, anticipates the coming of spring while he’s rolling a giant snowball in the direction of his best friend, Bertolt.
We first meet the boy as he’s rooting through the Lost & Found box at school in search of a missing mitten. He has plenty to choose from in that box, and finally settles on a green one — even though it doesn’t match his remaining red mitten.
Admittedly, wearing mismatched mittens sets him apart from other kids; a group is waiting outside school to point and laugh. “Sometimes people don’t like what’s different,” the boy tells us as he heads home. “To tell you the truth,” he adds, “I have a feeling I’m not like other people. Not just because of the mittens.”
And page by page, we discover that our hero is “what you call a loner.” He likes to do things by himself — whether it’s fishing lazily by a stream (while the worms make their getaway from his bait can) or skateboarding through a graveyard at night, his path illuminated by the flashlight strapped to his ever-present hat.
That hat, by the way, offers a clue to what follows. Clearly a winter tuque at the start of the book, it looks more and more like the cap on an acorn as the story progresses.
Author-illustrator Goldstyn, born and raised in Montreal, uses pen and ink, plus coloured pencils in a style reminiscent of French cartoonist Jean-Jacques Sempé, whose work has graced the covers of The New Yorker magazine, and who illustrated the Le petit Nicolas books written by René Goscinny. Just like Sempé, Goldstyn manages to convey a world of emotions in his detailed drawings, and captures the feelings of childhood — both its playfulness and imagination, as well as the sense of smallness that comes with being a child in a world of adults.
Here, however, the largest thing turns out to be the boy’s friend, Bertolt, a giant oak tree that offers him safe haven, a bird’s-eye view of the world (and the birds that roost in its branches), as well as a unique spot in which to do his imagining. When spring arrives, Bertolt’s leaves “make the coolest hideout ever” — a place where even someone who seems different can feel like he belongs.
So when spring comes and the trees “burst into bloom,” the boy races toward his friend — only to discover that Bertolt’s branches remain naked. Weeks pass, but not a single bud appears and the boy finally has to accept the fact that Bertolt has died. He handles it stoically, having dealt with the death of a cat and pet bird in the past. But what to do in this case?
As someone not afraid to think outside the box (pun intended), our resourceful hero heads back to the Lost & Found office, liberates the mittens, swipes his mother’s clothes pins, and methodically goes about dressing Bertolt in colourful raiments that would thrill any leaf peeper.