Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Speaking For Those Who Cannot Speak

Earlier this week when visiting the vet for Xena's weekly cold laser treatment, something happened which made me sick at heart.  With all the vacationers and summer residents back for a few months, the office is more crowded than usual.  On this day as we were leaving the room, all the chairs on two sides of the space were filled with people and their pets.

Right outside our door was a black Labrador mix with her human. Xena saw the other dog and they began barking.  This dog was growling too.  Holding tightly to the lease attached to Xena's harness with my legs on either side of her, I guided her through the gauntlet.

We were nearly past this dog when all of a sudden her man decided to bully her into submission.  The loud resounding whack echoed in the office after he struck his dog.  I was stunned saying, "No...No...No." as I left the building.  When I came back inside to make my payment, the dog and her man were already in an examination room.

Mistreatment of animals is beyond my comprehension.  Even today whenever I see a deer, a fox, a hawk, and other creatures of water, forest and field, I softly gasp in wonder.  Those people who champion their protection are my heroes. For these reasons when I closed the cover of A Boy And A Jaguar (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) written by Alan Rabinowitz with illustrations by Catia Chien, I cried.  

I'm standing in the great cat house at the Bronx Zoo.
Why is this jaguar kept in a bare room?  I wonder.

When the boy moves to the bars to speak to the animal his father asks him what he is doing.  He is unable to reply.  The boy is a stutterer.  At school even though his parents say he is not disturbed, that is the class in which he is placed.  The boy, understandably, feels as though he is incomplete.

Returning home each day he is able to speak easily with the animals he keeps in his bedroom closet; a hamster, a gerbil, a turtle, a chameleon, and a garter snake.  He makes a promise to his pets and to the jaguar on a return visit to the zoo.  He survives school enrolling in a special program for stutterers in college.  Working with a teacher for the first time in his life he can talk without stuttering.

Still feeling incomplete on the inside, the young man goes alone to habitats to study black bears, then jaguars.  His work makes him feel complete.  His new found happiness is tinged with sadness though as he realizes despite his best efforts jaguars are being killed by trophy hunters.

This man remembers his childhood promise.  He uses his voice to help those with no voice.  A jaguar preserve is created, the first and only one in the world.  Back in the tropical forest whispered words are again spoken.

When Alan Rabinowitz tells his story, readers feel an immediate empathy.  His use of specific experiences from his childhood, young adulthood and his subsequent work in the field are exactly what we need to know to understand his purpose and passion.  The style of writing is easily understood by younger readers but strikes a chord in readers of any age.  There are pauses in the text perfectly placed to help bring us closer into Rabinowitz's world.  Here is a single passage.

But my father knows the one thing that does
work.  He takes me to the great cat house at
the Bronx Zoo.  I go straight to the cage with
the lone jaguar, lean over the railing, and
put my face against the bars.

I whisper my promise to her.  Fluently.

The two full page illustration spread across the dust jacket and book case is initially intriguing.  After reading the book you are aware of its portrayal of the meeting of the past with a momentous incident in the future.  Catia Chien's choice to place a smaller picture of Alan and his father walking through the entrance to the Bronx Zoo on the title page is of particular importance too.

Rendered in acrylic and charcoal pencil the pictures beautifully depict the isolation this boy felt, how he worked to become whole and of the great things he has accomplished.  Chien alters the image sizes and background colors to convey emotional moments.  The darker burgundy used when Alan explains how he is unable to talk and when he is placed in the class for disturbed children is heart-wrenching.  This is followed by scenes of him speaking to his pets at home with a background of golden yellow; lifting our spirits as his are lifted.

When the young man knows he needs to do more to become whole, all of the pictures extend across two pages with the exception of two single pages.  This makes us aware of the big changes in his life.  Chien also places a single framed smaller picture within two of these larger visuals to provide specific details.

One of my favorite illustrations is of Alan in the tropical forest bending to look at jaguar prints in the soil; noticing a new set.  We readers see the large male jaguar peeking around from behind a tree watching.  The color palette captures this moment splendidly; the rich earth tones of the jungle, the falling shadows as daylight leaves, and the facial expressions on Alan and the jaguar.  This signals the beginning of a memorable encounter.

A wonderful collaboration of narrative and pictures A Boy And A Jaguar written by Alan Rabinowitz with illustrations by Catia Chien is a very important book.  It acts as a bridge, a connection, leading to greater compassion and understanding.  On the larger than normal back flap Rabinowitz is asked and answers five questions about big cats and stuttering.

By following the links embedded in the author's and illustrator's names you can discover more information about each of them and their work.  This link takes you to a special publisher page specifically for this title.  Enjoy the video below.

I know I say this every week but it's the honest-to-goodness truth.  I love participating in the 2014 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.  I have learned so much about people, places and a host of other things that I would never have known about without this challenge.  Thanks go to Alyson Beecher at Kid Lit Frenzy for hosting.

I hope you are able to pick up a copy of this book at your local indie store or your public library.  My personal copy was purchased at McLean & Eakin in Petoskey, Michigan.


  1. Margie - I had a chance to hold the original artwork for this book. :-) Catia Chien is super sweet. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and the video too.

    1. That must have been amazing Alyson. She truly captures the many emotions portrayed in this true story. You are welcome. But I can't thank you enough for this challenge. I have learned a great deal.

  2. I immediately bought this book when I read it at the bookstore. I love it! It's going right into my Empathy September unit!!!

    1. The final page is when I burst into tears. I am so glad you will be using it in your unit. I am glad that students can read about accomplished people who are still living. Make sure you watch the Colbert interview available on the website.

  3. I still haven't gotten to this book, but I have heard such fantastic reports and reviews. It seems amazing. Thanks for getting the title back to the top of my list.

    1. Knowing the kind of books you enjoy reading Crystal, I know you are going to love this book. I hope you get a chance to read it before school starts. Students are going to really connect with it.

  4. I loved this book too Margie. Such an important and inspirational message! I need to purchase a copy.

    1. We are kindred spirits Gigi! I hope you can get a copy soon.

  5. Wow. Your opening story is still sitting in my heart.
    I absolutely loved this story when I read it. My first thought was Schneider and Sibert....
    The video with Alan brings it all together I think!

    1. I cannot get it out of my mind, Michelle. Yes! I agree with the possibility of it receiving recognition. I think it would be interesting to hear him speak about his work.

  6. I didn't realize how powerful this book is until you shared your thoughts. It does sound like an important book. What a gift to be able to find books that move us so deeply. :)

    1. I hope you are able to get a copy soon Myra. These are the kind of stories our children need to hear.