There are some writers you can always depend on to turn out a good book, regardless of the genre. I first knew Regina author Alison Lohans as a short story writer for young adults. She’s also impressed me with her novels and children’s books. The ability to genre-hop and keep the literary standards at high-bar are Lohans’ trademarks, so I’m not surprised that Leaving Mr. Humphries, her tender story about a child reluctant to let go of his stuffed blue teddy bear, Mr. Humphries, also delivers a read that simultaneously entertains and plucks at the heart-strings.
This book is the result of a familial collaboration: it’s illustrated by Gretchen Ehrsam, Lohans’ American cousin, who-like the author-enjoyed childhood vacations at the family’s cottage in Dorset ON.
What first impressed was how quickly I was engaged. With kids’ books, writers don’t have the luxury to slowly beguile readers, and Lohans instantly gets us into the main character’s head and heart-space.
Josh is the protagonist. His mother is off to “a conference in the city,” and he’ll have to stay with Grandpa and Aunt Judy at their cottage. “My insides have a lonely, hurting feeling. I hold on tight to Mr. Humphries,” we read on page one. The story unfolds in clear, short sentences-the kind a child might “think” in-and images are credibly presented in the same way: “[Aunt Judy] helps me into a fat orange life jacket.”
As three generations enjoy a motorboat ride, outdoor meals (“Bugs bang into the screens but they can’t get us”), pie baking, and exploring, Lohans does a superb job of keeping the story in Josh’s young voice. She also believably demonstrates his anxiety re: sleeping in the attic, where “bats flap and squeak,” and using the outdoor toilet in the dark, raccoon-filled night. As long as Josh has the security of Mr. Humphries, he manages well.
A secondary theme in this book is aging. Josh frequently notes his grandfather’s advanced age. “Mr. Humphries and I wade in the lake while Grandpa sits in a chair,” Lohans writes. The boy sees his grandfather as “old and shaky,” and his hands shake when he works on a jigsaw puzzle. His daughter warns him not to take the boat out alone.
Lohans is also a musician, and her use of sound in this book stands out. She writes: “On the lake, a loon makes lonely sounds,” “feet clang on the metal steps,” and “Hummingbirds whir at the feeder.” Josh notes how “The bottom of the boat scrunches on sand” and “Water slurps and splashes.”
There are no notes on the accompanying full-page illustrations, but they look like woodcut prints and perfectly mirror the story’s subject and tone.
Regardless of their intended audience, children’s book have to first pass muster with the wallet-holders. Free copies are generally part of the payment for book reviewers, so I asked myself this: were I not reviewing Leaving Mr. Humphries, would middle-aged me buy this book? You bet your blue teddy bear I would.
THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM