The cover art alone for Jemmy Button by Jennifer Uman and Valerio Vidali made me want to read this book, regardless of what it is about. Everything about it made me want to reach out and touch it, then run my fingers over it again when I realized that certain sheaves of the greenery as well as the title are raised. Imagine my surprise when I opened the cover and discovered that Jemmy Button is a book that really has two stories, and one of them I already know!
Uman and Vidali are artists who me on the internet. He spoke only Italian, she spoke only English, but they began a two year dialogue using an online translator. To quote the jacket flap, "Based on shared ideas about travel, homesickness, distance and the story of Jemmy Button, they agreed to create a book together." In 2010 they met in New York City and a year later Jemmy Button was completed. But who was Jemmy Button? Orundellico was given the name Jemmy Button when Captain Robert FitzRoy of the HMS Beagle supposedly gave his parents a mother of pearl button in exchange for the boy, taking him and three other natives of Tierra del Fuego back to England where they became celebrities and even met the King and Queen. It was FitzRoy's intention to educate them and return them home, hoping they would spread the ways of the Victorians among their own people. A year later, when the HMS Beagle made its second voyage, this time with the young naturalist Charles Darwin aboard, Jemmy Button sailed home. The authors note that, when Jemmy Button recognized the shores of his home, he shed his Victorian clothing. It took him a while to relearn his language, but he chose not to return to England given the chance.
In sparse text, Jemmy Button tells the story of a boy far from home. Uman, a self-taught artist, and Vidali, who is a respected children's book illustrator in Italy, illustrate Jemmy Button in a way that feels very different from anything I've seen before, the pictures doing the bulk of the work in evoking the emotions and experiences of being a stranger in a strange land.
When in England, the British are never more than silhouettes, with Jemmy always a red-faced, mop-top, standing out in their midst. Soon, though, he begins to fit in, if not blend in. The authors even give him a mustache to match those of the top hatted Victorian men who fill the pages. The last image of Orundellico in the book, having returned home and hung his clothes on the branches of the trees on his island, he is back at the top of the tree when we first found him, but this time with his mustache on his face. Perhaps this is odd, but it strikes me as a stand-out symbol that children will pick up on. Jemmy's mustache is a sign of his assimilation into Victorian culture, and, when he is back home in his tree, it is the token of his travels, a souvenir, that young readers will recognize.