Review of Jungle Jim Jitters
by Chuck Richards
Publisher: Walker Books for Young Readers
Reviewed by Stefanie Newman
In the book Jungle Gym Jitters, writer and illustrator Chuck Richards introduces us to the world of George Jingle: a place where the most mundane objects are but a hammer-blow away from the realm of fun and fantasy. George, the dad, works in an office, but in his free time he is a tinkerer. His inventiveness results in an amazing jungle gym that grows page by page in the Jingles’ backyard.
We share in George’s delight as he gleans ideas from office supplies, dishes and donuts, but we also appreciate the growing trepidation of his son, Jerry. As the jungle gym grows ever more lofty, Jerry’s fear of heights mounts. His Jungle Gym Jitters keep him from jumping aboard his father’s creation. Frustrated, he longingly watches his sister and neighbors perform feats of daring above him. Witnessing the fun they are having, he feels that life is passing him by.
In the end, however, an overly ambitious backyard barbecue gets out of control and it is Jerry who saves the day, overcoming the perils of sky-high swinging tires, circus animals, fire—and Jungle Gym Jitters. Children can relate the narrative to times in their lives when they too were able to overcome their fears.
The world inhabited by the Jingles harkens back to the 1950s: It is a small town world of neighborhoods, Chevy sedans, and corner donut shops. Yet it is a dream-like world where the most ordinary places--a kitchen, for example--are strange and portentous due to the dramatic viewpoints that Mr. Richards selects.
Given the stunning perspectives and rich tonalities of his images, it should come as no surprise that Mr. Richards teaches art. His consideration of every visual aspect of the book’s images and, in fact, the very physical presence of the book itself, is obvious. It is a beautifully produced work, with heavyweight textured pages that enhance the subtle grays and earth tones of the drawings. The typeface is handsome as well.
Jungle Gym Jitters straddles a few age groups, and as such, it was difficult for me to pinpoint its exact audience. The images are complex and the subdued colors might appear somber to some readers. With that in mind, I find it hard to imagine the book appealing to children below the age of six. Although kids over seven are starting to gravitate toward chapter books, the rich illustrations of this picture book will probably attract many in the seven-to-ten age group. The wit of the rhymes and the subject matter seem geared to kids of at least seven-years-old, but the bounce of the meter would appeal to those even younger. My own seven-year old was quite taken by the visual transformation of the simple jungle gym at the beginning of the book to the amazing structure at the end. His eyes really popped when the zoo animals appeared!
Toward the end of the story, as the jungle gym moves beyond the plausible, the images become more and more fractured. Although objects and figures are always carefully rendered in a realistic--if exaggerated--way, they now inhabit places where there is no longer a stable ground; a place where floors tip and spaces shift in a world reminiscent of M.C. Escher’s fantasies. At the same time, there is enough humor and familiarity to keep this dreamscape from becoming a nightmare. The ride Chuck Richards takes us on is exhilarating and enchanting, rather than frightening.
Stefanie Newman is an artist originally from Chicago. She now lives with her husband and seven-year old son in Schuyler, Virginia, which is remote enough to warrant a bookmobile stop in her driveway.
© 2006, Stefanie Newman