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Me… Jane

June 2011: Since Jane Goodall’s passion for animals began in early childhood, what better audience to create a pictorial biography of her than for very young children? What a beautiful, heart-stirring book!


Jane Goodall, archetypal field biologist, chimpanzee expert, United Nations Messenger of Peace, creator of the global Roots and Shoots programme inspiring young people to take environmental and social action to make the world a better place, began life as a babe in arms… in the arms of a stuffed animal chimpanzee given to her as a gift! (A photo of baby Jane and friend chimp is at the back of the book.)


Jane grew up with that chimpanzee, spending much of her time in the branches of a favourite tree reading about another Jane in the pages of Tarzan of the Apes. By the time she was 10, Jane had resolved to go to Africa, to live with animals and write about them. Though the 1950s were hardly a time when young women were encouraged to embark on adventures far from home, Goodall was determined. With her mother’s encouragement, she worked and saved. By 1957, she arrived in Africa for the first time, meeting famed anthropologist Louis Leakey. By 1960, she was settled in
Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park studying wild chimpanzees.


In his ‘About Jane Goodall’ at the back of Me… Jane, McDonnell writes: “One of Jane’s most important observations was her discovery that chimpanzees are able to make and use tools. Until this time, experts thought only humans were able to do so. But based on Jane’s remarkable studies, the world was forced to rethink what makes humans different from (other) animals.”

Me… Jane, written for ages 4-8, is in fact a treasure for any age. With his trademark light, sometimes whimsical touch, McDonnell, the creator of the beloved, internationally syndicated comic strip MUTTS, leads us into the world Jane experienced as a young girl. With minimal text giving the youngest listeners and readers just enough information to capture their imagination, McDonnell depicts a passionate and playful young Jane exploring and inquiring into nature close at hand around her home in England. Jane grew up with Jubilee, the toy chimp that accompanied her on all her earliest adventures, and McDonnell sometimes depicts the chimp becoming a fully alive companion, much as Jane must have experienced her (I imagine Jubilee may have been a girl!).


Jane and Jubilee explore their big backyard, and even a chicken coop, where Jane experiences the reward of any good naturalist’s ability to sit very quietly and watch: the miracle of where eggs come from! McDonnell shows Jane at her desk, Jubilee by her side, drawing nature studies, taking notes, and creating activities and puzzles for her one-girl club she dubbed “The Aligator Society.” Jane’s own journal pages are reproduced on facing pages, revealing an early dedication to a diligent study of animals in all their scientific specificity.


Me… Jane is what any good picture book should be… a pleasure to hold, even caress, and a feast for the eyes. McDonnell used a quiet palette of India ink and watercolors… the tones are soft, with a hint of sepia. Every page is a lively but not too busy combination of McDonnell’s own depictions of Jane and Jubilee, interspersed with ornamental nature engravings from nineteenth and early twentieth century works, as well as stamped images of eggs, moons, trees, leaves, and McDonnell’s own tiny offerings of a frog here, a squirrel there, chickadee, butterfly, little pots of paints and brushes signifying studious Jane’s long hours at her desk.


McDonnell’s very particular brand of magic, reminding me a little of some of Sendak’s brilliant moments, appears, for example, when we see Jane and Jubilee up in the tree of her ordinary backyard on one page, and on the next, the yard subtly transformed into dense African jungle, replete with beasts that seem just a little bit surprised to be fading in and out between their own familiar habitat and an English garden.


At the book’s end, McDonnell uses a photograph of a grown-up Jane Goodall in a way that will bring a gasp from your child’s lips and tears to your eyes. Thank you Jane Goodall, for everything you have done and do for planet Earth… and Patrick McDonnell, for bringing your story so vividly and inspiringly to life.


By Patrick McDonnell

Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2011,
Hardcover, 40 pages, Price: $15.99.


Reviewed by Jennifer Scarlott


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