Today I wrestle with how to share a brilliantly clever, marvelously illustrated book. It is a story, quite simply, about walls. It is a surprising story, a hilarious story, a fun and thought-provoking story. Don’t miss this one. It is worth reading, talking about with everyone, and reading aloud to anyone: The Wall in the Middle of the Book by Jon Agee, 2018.
The story really begins on the end pages, before we think there is a story at all. The brick wall in the middle divides the spread in two. Both sides look nearly identical with ample white space and a sliver of grass along the bottom. The only difference is a single brick lying on the grass of the left side and the small hole in the wall it has left behind.
On the title page, a rhinoceros enters from the right and stares at the brick wall.
And then comes the first page of the text:
The little soldier guy has entered from the left with a ladder. He is going to fix the fallen brick. He states the obvious: there is a wall in the middle of the book. On the other side, the rhino is inspecting the height of the wall, while a tiger ironically breaks the fourth wall of the book by looking directly at the reader. His expression makes me laugh every time. Perhaps he is expressing the “duh” moment that of course we can see there is a wall in the middle of the book.
The story continues with the little character fixing the wall while proclaiming at the reader the necessity and merit of having the wall. It is protecting his side of the book from the terrible things on the other side. He declares his side of the book as safe, especially from the worst thing on the other side of the book: the ogre. He knows that the ogre is dangerous and would eat him.
While all of this is happening, sentence by sentence on each page turn, more animals have come on the other side of the wall. They appear to be climbing the wall for some reason, and then are scared away by a tiny, hilarious little mouse. And then an ogre appears. He is as big and possibly frightening as the little man is stating.
But there is a third story going on that the little man is completely oblivious to as well. While he easily fixes the fallen brick on his side, and blissfully discusses the beauty and strength of the dividing wall; his side of the book is mysteriously changing. Water is creeping in, and larger and more deadly sea creatures devour other, smaller creatures. When the little guy becomes aware of his world suddenly being completely different than he believed, the only one to save him is… the ogre.
This book is so incredibly clever, brilliant, and humbling. It is not lost on me that this book came out last year, and a picture book typically takes 2 years to make. Do the math, dear reader, and think carefully about the timing and conversations about walls and safety and assumptions in the last two+ years. There’s a lot to be pondered and discussed and challenged by this beautifully simple and remarkably clever book.
One of my very favorite things about this book is the entire topic of walls themselves. The first wall – the obvious, illustrated wall – breaks the rules of picture books from the very start. No art is EVER supposed to touch or go into the gutter of a book. “Be mindful of the margins!” we illustrators and book layouters are always told. “Make sure nothing of importance gets lost in the gutter!” The very existence of the wall is a terrible, rule-breaking thing in and of itself. Nothing of importance should be in the gutter of a book; and yet, it is the most important thing in this one… apparently.
The next wall to notice, is the fourth wall, or the invisible, imagined wall that separates actors from the audience – a concept created originally for the stage where the audience can obviously see through this wall; but the actors act as if they cannot. I love when a picture book appropriately breaks the fourth wall. Here, the ogre has already broken the fourth wall on the cover, a very important note. But, Agee brilliantly lets the tiger on the right side of the book be the first to break this fourth wall within the story. It sets the tone of the book. At the same time he is making eye contact with the reader, the little guy is talking to the reader. We instantly know that the animals on the other side of the wall know what is happening, perhaps more than the narrator does. The little man also looks directly at the reader many times; but in the process, we the reader can see what he is missing. We can see what is happening on his side of the wall. But we can also see both sides of the wall and as he is speaking to us about his sure assumptions about that other side; we the reader have to weigh what we hearing and what we are seeing and decide for ourselves where the truth lies.
The last wall to discuss is also unseen. It is much more deceptive. Much more nuanced. And can only be broken by extreme measure it would seem. This is of course the wall in the little man’s mind. His assumptions about the world. His ideas about one side versus the other. His deep need and constructed definition of safety. This wall is built and maintained by himself and is only taken down by near tragedy.
I am so grateful that this book has a happy ending. I love the redemption in the character. I love the kindness and gentleness of the unexpected hero. I love the illustrations in their simplicity, incredible expressiveness, and subtle humor to the gravity of the story. I love the surprising wordless spreads, used sparsely, that give an extra beat to think and connect with the characters. They allow one’s mind to consider and reassess assumptions. This book is so well-done, so timely, so thoughtful. There is a picture book for everything. Spend time with this one, dear reader.