Books about unlikely or unusual friends are commonplace in the picture book world. Between the pages of a book, friendships between dogs and frogs, boys and ducks and girls and stuffed rabbits can flourish without being impeded by silly obstacles like language and life. After all, when you're a child, some of your best friends are either inanimate objects, or of another species, but that doesn't mean you love them any less.
Thankfully, there's nothing commonplace about Oliver Jeffers' friends in Up and Down, the sequel to his successful Lost and Found. Here, the friendship at stake is between a boy and a penguin, "who always did everything together", everything including playing music and backgammon, their favorite game. Everything is going swimmingly, until the penguin thinks of something he wants to do by himself. Fly. The penguin tries many different ways of making his little wings work (with the boy always on hand for assistance), but has no luck. When they visit the zoo looking for advice, the penguin finds the answer he's looking for, but loses the boy. Boy and penguin are of course reunited in the end, when the boy proves once again how important friendship is when flying out there on your own. The penguin is content with his adventure, and the two go home together, riding (and stilt-walking) off into the sunset.
Jeffers' books have always appealed to me. There's something about his style, the shapes his bodies make that are very comforting. The penguin is little more than a black and white round-edged rectangle with tiny orange feet poking out. He looks like you could pick him up and sqeeze him, and he'd only squeak a little bit. Jeffers has everything cast a shadow, which gives the spreads both depth and whimsy. And whimsy is something Jeffers is never short on, though it never overwhelms you either. I think those shadows do more than give the illustrations weight. They give anchor to the more fanciful elements, my favorite of which being the night scene where the penguin is missing his friend while sitting on a park bench knitting him a hat with red yarn. Jeffers' work is allowed to be sweet, but never over-the-top or saccharine. He has made a career, with stories of his boy, of finding just the right balance.
Up and Down, like Lost and Found, is ultimately a sensitive story of friendship from a master of the unique. I've never seen books quite like Jeffers', and I hope he continues producing them for a long, long time.
Up and Down by Oliver Jeffers
2010, Philomel Books