Jim’s Lion by Russell Hoban is a strange and powerful story. Originally published in 2001 with illustrations by Ian Andrew, it has been re-released this year with illustrations by Alexis Deacon, who also illustrated Hoban’s last children’s story: SoonChild, which I have reviewed on this blog.
I have a vested interested in winkling out Hoban’s works. I loved his stories about Frances, the naughty badger, when I was a child, and I passed that love onto my children as soon as I could, hunting down the books in antiquarian book sellers, as at that time they had been out of print for years. It delights me that his work is getting a new lease of life. In my opinion he is one of the most original and interesting voices in children’s literature.
Jim’s Lion tells the story of Jim who is incredibly poorly. We are never told precisely what is wrong with Jim, but it is very clear that whatever it is might kill him, and that Jim knows all too well what might happen to him.
Naturally, Jim is frightened. An operation might be on the cards, but only if Jim is well enough to have it, which the Drs think he isn’t. Jim is in limbo. He knows the operation is his only chance, but he also knows that many people don’t make it through the operation and he is worried about going to some place where he might never come back.
His nurse is incredibly kind and wise as he confides in her. She explains to him that he can take himself to a place of calmness where he can discover what she calls a ‘finder’. A finder is some sort of creature that can be strong for Jim and save Jim when Jim feels unable to save himself.
Jim sets out to explore and see if he can locate his finder.
The story is one of few words. The majority of the pages are taken up with Deacon’s illustrations of firstly Jim’s nightmares and fears, and then Jim’s adventures with tracking down his finder.
The story is incredible. It pulls no punches without being brutal at all, and it articulates exactly what it feels like to be in Jim’s position with no sentimentality whatsoever. I would imagine it is a kind of godsend if you need to talk/discuss/open up this kind of experience with a child for any reason. It is simple without being patronising or stupid or overly flowery.
In fact it is, at times, a terrifying book, in large part down to the surreally dream like, nightmarish illustrations by Alexis Deacon. I cannot imagine what the illustrations by Ian Andrew were like, but these are utterly absorbing and incredibly evocative of nightmares I suffered as a child.
I found myself wondering whether children would be as unnerved by them as I am. I’m still not sure. I am in two minds as to whether this book will terrify you or help you. Maybe it will do both.