Inspiring Young Readers
Looking for Yesterday by Alison Jay
What could be more inviting than a picture book cover that shows a boy with his granddad sitting on a flying book against a summer blue sky across a surreal landscape which features a merry go round, a huge ice cream cone, a dinosaur and a man riding a pig chasing a boy riding a chicken? This charming story was apparently inspired by childhood memories of her own father who was a rocket engineer and perfectly captures the age old conundrum of understanding time and space.
As the flyleaf promises, this is a story that ‘tackles the big questions of space and time and the pursuit of happiness’ – quite an ambitious undertaking for a children’s picture book. The first double page spread shows us a closer view of the world glimpsed on the cover. It includes the stylised smiling sun that features in many of Jay’s illustrations and this is balanced by the round shape of the little boy’s face on the facing right hand page. He faces out from his bed with the words ‘Yesterday was the best day’’ floating above him. On the next page we see him lying asleep with his dog remembering all the wonderful experiences he has enjoyed and I love the way in which the real patterned curtains bleed back into the dream landscape.
He decides to puzzle out how he might best capture his happy memories of yesterday by contemplating the mystery of the starlit sky through his telescope but soon realises that travelling back through time is much too difficult. The way in which this highly complex idea is so simply conveyed through words and pictures is pure poetry and is cleverly conveyed by the page design showing the roundness of the globe filling the left hand page which spills across the left hand page to balance with his round face. Both the boy and the world have exactly the same expression.
The boy continues to ponder the problem eventually realising that he needs some expert advice from his wise old granddad, a man who has plenty of his own happy memories to draw upon. I particularly liked the way in which the old photos in his album come alive, which reminded me of a similar idea in the animated film ‘Up’. Together they travel together over mountains and oceans through the sky and from this point Jay adds a cracked eggshell surface to the illustrations, a familiar and effective technique that she often uses, presumably to give the illusion of antiquity.
As he closes the photo album they look at one another companionably as granddad explains that it is best to focus on the present and the future rather than worry about returning to the past. This chimes with the apt Walt Whitman quotation at the front of the book:
‘Happiness, not in another place but in this place… not for another hour but this hour.
The last double page spread shows them doing just that as they travel together on the more conventional transport of a motorbike and sidecar away from us deep into another thrilling landscape. The final page shows a photograph taken from this last journey as they play together on the beach.
I am already a fan of the distinctive style of Alison Jay and so was delighted to find another one which is equally as good as her very beautiful picture book debut Bee and Me. This illustrator has a well established reputation for interpreting the words of many other authors, one of my favourites includes a gorgeous Alice in Wonderland. But she has such a glorious imagination that you can almost feel the pleasure that she takes when she is in sole charge of the words and the pictures. I do hope that she will continue to produce more picture books so that I can add to my growing Alison Jay collection.