Sometimes a very special book comes along that is reserved for particular occasions. The Heart and the Bottle is such a book – it is not a bedtime story or likely one that will be demanded repeatedly but it does deliver an important, delicate message.
Oliver Jeffers, author and illustrator of a number of award winning children’s books (How to Catch a Star, Lost and Found, The Incredible Book Eating Boy) explores the themes of love, death and grieving in The Heart and the Bottle.
The Heart and the Bottle tells the story of a girl whose life was filled with wonder – she wanted to know all about the stars, the sky and the sea. She shares these wonders with a male figure whom we assume is her father. Then something happens that causes the girl to take her heart and put it in a bottle for safe keeping. Although that seemed to fix things at first, “…in truth, nothing was the same. She forgot about the stars… and stopped taking notice of the sea…. But at least her heart was safe.”. It is not until the girl, portrayed as an adult, meets “someone smaller and still curious about the world” that her heart is restored to her.
In many ways the little girl’s loss of her father is abstract and may not be immediately understood by young children. However, Jeffers’ fine drawings are truly enough to tell the story and I think children observe the detail in illustrations that adults may overlook. The narrative revolves around a few key images – the girl, a chair, her heart and a bottle – each of these elements is embellished in different ways to express the changing emotions in the story.
In the beginning the chair is occupied by the girl’s father and thought balloons, filled with scientific diagrams and sketches and the girl’s own drawings, are used to illustrate the ‘conversations’. The pages ooze excitement, curiosity and the love shared between father and daughter. The chair is then empty and we realise that the girl has lost her father. The final illustration (after the girl has her heart back) shows her sitting on the chair with a huge thought balloon, exploding with colour and images – “And the chair wasn’t so empty anymore.”.
There are some sophisticated and complex themes in this book, for example when the girl realises that she needs her heart but can’t find a way to retrieve it or the fact that grief can close people off from the world. However Jeffers’ handles these themes with extreme delicacy – there are no references to death or grieving in the text which in turn allows the reader to delve in as much or as little as they need. This is an exceptional book.
The Heart and the Bottle is due to be featured in a major motion picture. In the clip below, Jeffers talks about his creative process.
The Heart and the Bottle is available at most bookshops and online at Fishpond for $23.97.