On HIGH IN THE CLOUDS
HIGH IN THE CLOUDS, by Paul McCartney, Geoff Dunbar and Philip Ardagh is supposed to be for Grades 2-4, but its themes, vocabulary and syntax are more advanced.
From Barnes and Noble:
"Wirral the Squirrel is homeless. The evil Gretsch have [sic] destroyed his wilderness home, trampling it in their relentless drive to expand. But Wirral does not despair; he vows to find a new home in Animalia, the fabled land where all creatures are said to live together in freedom. What begins as a personal quest becomes a mission as the brave little acorn-cracker realizes that animals are enslaved everywhere. Sir Paul McCartney, children's book author Geoff Dunbar, and children's book artist Philip Ardagh have created a beautiful book with an ever-timely message."
There's a lot missing in that description, such as the surprising death of Wirral's mother, Sugartail, at the beginning of the book. But if I were to be critical about the narrative of the book, I'd say there's a lot missing there too. For instance, Sugartail's death happens so suddenly and without a lot of explanation. Their home was evidently slated to be bulldozed, and then it was. Done. Me and my doctorate had to reread sections of the book because I kept thinking I overlooked the context or backstory of a handful of details. I even started from the beginning three times because I thought I missed a page or a paragraph.
With that said, the illustrations are wonderful, and the general theme of this adventure story is laudable. This reader would have liked to have seen the story and the characters developed more (and with fewer stereotypes), however. I understand this is a children's book, but particularly if you're trying to be a voice for animals, it would behoove you to make connections that might be missed otherwise. For instance, the animals are enslaved. They are forced to work in factories owned by a hideous woman, Gretsch. Wirral's quest is to free the animals and take them to Animalia, where all animals (and insects, as a flea from a flea circus is a major character, and beetles are mentioned) already are free. But there's no connection made–or no explanation–for how we use animals. Animals are indeed enslaved, but in real life they're not making widgets in factories. And when you read the reviews on various sites that sell the book, there is no mention of how we enslave animals. I don't get a sense that readers really understand the message.
But that's because the message isn't developed. I'm giving the book a vegan/animal rights message because that's my lens. Objectively, however, though the use message is there, believe it or not, you can talk about enslaving animals and still not present a clear vegan message. Or any vegan message. There is no mention of food or skin or zoos. The factory is supposed to be a proxy for all of that, but it doesn't work for me. I wish it did, but it doesn't.
Finally, there's a place over yonder where animals are free (Animalia). And the animals all go there after they are set free. They don't stay where they are (Megatropolis), I think, because humans are destroying it and building cities with evil factories that enslave animals. So there's a pro-environment/anti-development message in the book that, for me, is clearer than the animal rights message. We are destroying their homes, but there's a place where they are free from us. That's a nice message for kids, I guess.
The problem is there isn't really a place they can all go to be free from us, which is why I find the ending strange. I know the ending would have to be a happy one, but rather than mass exodus, how about the animals taking their homes back or . . . something.
I suppose telling young children the details of the enslavement of sentient nonhumans isn't an easy task, and any entree to the discussion is helpful. This book is indeed a way of beginning to discuss what enslavement is and all of the ways we use animals, and for that reason I'll read it to Baby Sky. But probably with plenty of commentary throughout.