Me...Jane by Patrick McDonnell. 48 p. Little, Brown Young Readers, April, 2011.
From the back cover: Here is the story of a little girl named Jane who dreamed of a life helping animals and grew up to help change the world.
Oh! Where do I begin to describe this feast of a book? First off, it's designed to look like a photo album/ scrap book. Secondly, the pages are thick and silky with a creamy tan background color that seems to darken close to the edges. Third, it has some heft for a picture book!
The title page features a black and white photograph of Jane, I'd say between the ages of 8 & 10, judging from the toothy smile and lanky legs. She's holding a stuffed monkey. Wait a second. Flip back to the front cover. There, right in the center is a painting of a photograph mounted right over a painting of a jungle featuring a little girl with blond hair, wearing a plaid skirt, holding a monkey. McDonnell used the photograph as a model for his cartoon drawings of Jane Goodall, the dreamy girl who loved animals and nature. What a lovely homage to that girl, who grew up to be one of the world's foremost primatologists and vocal conservationists!
The right-hand pages feature lovely little scenes from young Jane's life in a colorful, yet muted palette. The left-hand pages contain the text of the story and lots of spot art related to that chunk of text. The full page paintings have a border that is not a border, but the irregular edges of watercolor paintings before they are covered by a matte. The spot art is not cartoonish at all, some seem to be prints, one looks like a leaf rubbing, and a double page spread appears to be right out of Jane's own nature journal. Her faithful Monkey, called Jubilee, appears with her in each painting and is an active participant in whatever Jane's imagination cooked up. At the end of the book, Jane tucks Jubilee into bed before she herself sleeps. Readers turn the page to find a grown up Jane sleeping sans Jubilee, in a tent . Turn the page to learn that her dream came true. Instead of another painting, there is an full-color photo of a tiny chimpanzee reaching out to a patiently crouching Jane. The final pages contain an author's note and a "Message from Jane." The very last page features some art notes, confirming my suspicion that those double-pages were indeed, Goodall's own, and reproduction of a cartoon that she created in Africa.
Sigh. So satisfying. I'm glad that I read The Watcher first though. It pales a bit in comparison. However, I think that both books deserve shelf space in most libraries and classrooms, even in a middle school library/ classroom. Of course, elementary teachers and librarians will have lots to mine by reading both to their classes, the least of which are comparisons and contrasts.
Here's the conversation that I would like to have with middle school students: which book is the biography? Why is one classified as fiction? Me...Jane is classified as fiction. However, many more "facts" about Jane Goodall can be gleaned from it than The Watcher. Me...Jane focuses on her childhood and devotes only a page or two to her work in Africa. The Watcher just devotes a few pages to her childhood and devotes most of the book to her adult work. Those who read my write-up of The Watcher know that I have a quibble about the implication that all of Goodall's work was solitary.
I have no answers to my questions, but would love to hear the opinions of students on it. I think having a class dialogue can be enriching. I'm always amazed by observations my students make on a regular basis. Non-fiction has become "creative," taking some liberties and breaking rules of formal writing. Fiction can be filled with truths. Just today, someone posted a question to LM_Net about Sharon Robinson's picture book story about her father called Testing the Ice. It is classified as fiction and the poster wanted to know if anyone knew why. Good question. I think that flitted through my mind as well a year or so back when I catalogued a signed copy of it for my school library. I just wish I knew about its classification to ask the author when she signed the book. (Kadir Nelson signed it as well!) I had assumed that it would've been classified as a biography.
Jacqueline Woodson's powerful book, Show Way is based on her family stories, but is classified as historical fiction. She explained in a note in the book, that since parts of the story could not be verified historically, it was treated as a work of fiction. And yet, every time I have read this story aloud and I have read it to students from 3rd grade to 8th, the audience is hushed and rapt and, invariably, someone asks, "Is this a true story?" Which segues nicely into truth with a big T and truth with a little t. This is definitely a big T story.
Back to Me...Jane, I can also envision middle school science teachers incorporating the book, especially if they are trying to illustrate the fact that science is all around us or that scientists need to have excellent powers of observation as well as great imagination. Language arts teachers might use the title as an example of allusion. Of course, art teachers would have a field day.