Readers of The Jade Sphinx are well aware of our high regard for well-crafted children’s literature. The genre boasts works that demonstrate all of the best that was said and thought in the language – think Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan or The House at Pooh-Corner – and has carved out a singular literary tradition of its own. The United Kingdom and Continental Europe owns this literary franchise (from the days of Grimm’s Fairy Tales to today’s own Harry Potter), and any serious discussion of the genre returns again and again to several key, European works.
Fortunately for us here in the United States, we have enjoyed our own golden age – but the tradition stateside has really been in fabulously-illustrated picture books. Our great prose fantasist was L. Frank Baum (1856-1919), but most American masters have a special magic for merging word with image, and they have created art of a very high order. For the last 50 years or so, the US has been home to some of the most fertile, creative and artistic book creators in the world.
The fullest contemporary realization of this great tradition is the Louisiana-born William Joyce (born 1957). We have been watching his work with great interest, and he has not lost his ability to continually surprise us.
After decades of beautiful and evocative work, Joyce has concentrated on his magnum opus, The Guardians of Childhood series, which chronicles the beginnings of such childhood gods as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and the Sandman. The series has included both prose novels and picture books, and unified his own cosmology, much like Baum’s world-building Oz books. The latest installment in the series is the lavishly illustrated picture book, Jack Frost, created in collaboration with Andrew Theophilopoulos.
As his narrative has crossed several mediums (prose novels, picture books and a feature film), Joyce has had to juggle elements between episodes to maintain a fully-realized whole. Jack Frost provides the bridge between the character Nightlight as seen in the books and Jack Frost, who served as the focal character of the feature film. But as a key segment in the ongoing narrative, or as a stand-alone picture book, Jack Frost is terrific entertainment and a delightful addition of the Guardians saga.
In short, Frost tells how the heroic sprite Nightlight sacrifices his life to protect the infant Man in the Moon from the soul-crushing evil of the series villain, Pitch. (That’s the Boogeyman to me and you.) Nightlight saves the day, but at terrific cost. He resurrects as Jack Frost, but has no memory of his former self or mission.
What follows is some of the most haunting and resonant themes in the Joycean canon – that of death and resurrection as well as continual change and growth. Frost feels Olympian isolation and loneliness, and as he does, he leaves cold and frost in his wake. This winter of the soul becomes actual winter weather for humankind – until that grief and mourning can be rechanneled into healthier, more positive energy.
Joyce accomplishes this miracle with great economy of language; he has also retained the lush blue-gold European palette of the series, paying homage to the Continental roots of many the of Guardians.
The series will continue with additional prose novels and picture books, and one wonders how Joyce will conclude his epic in the books to come. There is the sense that the Guardians of Childhood is a mid-career summation of Joyce’s artistry, of his deepest-held beliefs, and his untiring optimism and energy. The Guardians of Childhood is a magnificent monument to a kind and benevolent genius, and an important influence on young hearts and imaginations. More, please.
Jack Frost is available in bookstores everywhere, and is highly recommended for the young (and young at heart) this holiday season.