Oddfellow's Orphanage written and illustrated by Emily WInfield Martin, 126 pp, RL 3
is now in paperback!
With her first book for children, Oddfellow's Orphanage, Emily Winfield Martin combines her many talents and uncommon vision to create a book that I would have adored as a child. Martin's first book, The Black Apple's Paper Doll Primer, caught my eye one day last year while I was shelving in the craft section and I was entranced. Martin doesn't just draw and paint, she fabricates a complete world for her creations, be they human, animal or other. That a children's book should emerge from her teemingly creative imagination is no surprise at all. For those of you who are Etsy fans, you may already know Martin and her Official Black Apple Shoppe. In fact, as I learned in this article, editor Mallory Loehr, admitted Etsy enthusiast, was so taken by Martin's works and the descriptive blurbs that came with every piece of her art that she began communicating with Martin and as, as Loehr says, "Emily agreed to work with me on writing a young middle grade story, featuring the orphans, inspired by episodic classics like Winnie-the-Pooh. It would be filled to the gills with art."
And Oddfellows Orphanage is filled to the gills with art, art that I could not resist including in my review here! As Loehr notes, Oddfellows Orphanage is an episodic book like Milne's classic, meaning that each chapter is a self-contained story but that all the stories are linked by a uniting thread that makes the sum of the parts read like a whole. In Oddfellows Orphanage, that uniting thread is the sense of acceptance and security that permeates the book, the orphanage and the adults who run it. Chapter 1, "A Beginning of Sorts," tells of the middle of the night arrival of Delia at the orphanage in a carriage pulled by two bears after being retrieved by Headmaster Oddfellow Bluebeard and Professor Stella. The thirteen chapters that follow each start with a portrait and brief description of one of the characters in the book. All the illustrations and the text are in a dark brown ink, adding to the antique, old fashioned feel conveyed in the story.
While we have to wait until the final chapter of Oddfellows Orphanage to learn about Delia's background, we do learn right away that she does not speak. Once at the orphanage, she is given a small notebook that she wears around her neck and writes in when she needs to communicate with words. However, she speaks with her eyes whenever she can and in this way forms a special bond with a bear cub who lives at the orphanage. When the cub goes missing everyone searches for him all day and into the night. Despondent over his disappearance, Delia skips dinner to head right to bed and finds the cub tucked in her wardrobe happily eating the "welcome" jar of honey given to her by Headmaster Bluebeard, who keeps bees. As each chapter progresses, Delia settles into her new home and encounters curious traditions and happy practices at Oddfellows Orphanage.
While the gentle pace and cozy tone of Martin's writing give Oddfellows Orphanage an old fashioned feel reminiscent of Elizabeth Orton Jones and her books Twig and Big Susan, she also quietly introduces carnivalesque oddities that call to mind Edward Gorey without the Gothic overtones. There is Hugo the hedgehog, Ollie, the onion headed boy and Imogen, one of a long line of illustrated men and women. Imogen, having lost most of her family to influenza, went to live with her sleepwalking grandmother when she was eight. One night, "as the grandmother slept more horizontally than usual" Imogen ran away in a rowboat and, as the "sun woke her, she found herself on the back of a big black bear, approaching the Oddfellows Orphanage." There are also curious creatures, from the Great Horned Rabbit to the creature in the Great Green Lake and the mermaids that Professor Silas, who studied at the preeminent College of Cryptozoology, possesses in fossilized form.
Nature and the seasons are also an important part of Oddfellows Orphanage, which ends with a surprise at the door on New Year's Eve. One intriguing tradition was started by Headmaster Oddfellow, who decreed that a person"really only needed two haircuts a year," more frequent trims being "just silly." In this spirit, he instituted Haircut Day at the orphanage. Falling twice a year, in Summer and Winter, it was a much anticipated day filled excitement. After all the haircuts have been given, the children take the hair into the forest for the birds to use as material for their nests. Another happy event occurs in summer when Headmaster Oddfellow looks out his window at the blooming garden and, finding that "the flowers reminded him of little cakes," calls for a picnic. The feast includes "jewel-colored cakes" that tower on cake stands, rides of the back of Boris the bear, tours of the beehives and a play put on by the children telling the story of the founding of the orphanage. The night ends with the glow of fireflies. There is also the annual trip to the circus, which is a going away party for the bears as they prepare to go into hibernation. And, of course, there are the glorious preparations for Christmas itself that include the hunt for the perfect Christmas tree, making presents for friends, building (and eating bits of) a gigantic gingerbread house, the Headmaster's recitation of "Twas the Night Before Christmas" and a Christmas day pantomime, acted, written, costumed and designed by the children. The new year brings a new child to Oddfellows and the last chapter of the book which ends,
On New Year's morning, the rest of the house stirred into motion, welcoming the tuny new comer into a family that was hardly ordinary, but rather . . . extraordinary. A family stitched together from the scraps of other families, living together in the enormous house made of brick that is called Oddfellow's Orphanage.
Oddfellows Orphanage where you can download paper dolls of Delia and Ollie by clicking diversions! Below are portraits that Martin painted of her cast of characters that can be viewed, along with their likes and dislikes, on the website for the book (or by clicking) as well! Martin is selling these original paintings, acrylic on canvas, at the Black Apple Shoppe. Only seven of the thirteen are left!
Emily Winfield Martin's work reminds me a bit of a childhood favorite of mine, Joan Walsh Anglund, although her text is not nearly as saccharine.