REVIEW by Eleanor Howe

NWR Issue r26

The Snow Leopard, The Ice Bear, Tell Me A Dragon (Jackie Morris Retrospective)

by Jackie Morris

Cover of The Ice Bear by Jackie Morris

It is not very often that a children’s book causes a nationwide stir, in the literary world, or beyond, but when artist Jackie Morris teamed up with writer Robert Macfarlane to create The Lost Words, it did just that. A compendium of acrostic ‘spells’ (otter, acorn, etc) written by MacFarlane, accompany Morris’ dreamy watercolour illustrations in a gorgeously realised counter-move to Oxford English Dictionary’s decision to cut many nature words from their Junior Dictionary. The Lost Words has hit the headlines many times since its publication last year, and is the first children’s book ever to be nominated for the prestigious Wainwright’s Prize for nature writing. It was a book that captured many hearts, due in no small part to Morris’ phenomenal illustrations. This review rounds up three of Jackie Morris’ past picture books, re-published in deluxe large-format hardbacks by Graffeg in 2017 and 2018.

The books are immediately striking—huge and glossy, with enormous front cover pictures—inviting you to approach them with ritual; something to be savoured, read curled up on the sofa with a cup-of-something, the books spread-eagled across your lap.

Cover of The Snow Leopard by Jack Morris

The Snow Leopard first. The first page immediately transports me out of this year’s unusual and almost indecently hot summer, to somewhere much colder with a magnificent full two-page spread of the eponymous snow leopard, backdropped with cool blues and golden stars. Graffeg’s website states that the paperback version, published in 2007 by Francis Lincoln Children’s Books, was somewhat more modest in stature. In this Tenth Anniversary deluxe edition, the books are for the first time as Morris herself intended them to be, large enough to display her paintings in whole. The result is absorbing. The eye can slowly meander across the page, taking in her work’s subtleties. Look closer, and the grey pelt of the snow leopard comes to life. A flush of purple here, a flash of white there; such depth that you can almost reach out and bury your hands in the stuff.

Her paintings are both realistic and fantastic; life-like animals run in dreamy vistas of star-scattered valleys and gold-dusted mountain-air. The seam of fantasy running through Morris’ paintings marries well with The Snow Leopard’s theme. It is set partly in the mysterious and supernatural Mergich Realm in the Himalayan mountains, which is stewarded by mysterious, pure beings who tend sheep, ibex and the sacred land around them. People enter this country only with permission, in animal form, becoming themselves a Mergichan. As the world turns and the greed and corruption of humankind grows, an ancient snow leopard, Mergichan, watches protectively over a remote mountain valley. As destructive soldiers approach, the leopard realises that she must seek the next warden, and pass on her sacred knowledge.

So begins a dreamy, fable-like tale of a young girl’s transformation into a snow leopard, as she learns ‘the songs of the valley, of the lark and the swift’ and ‘how to still her mind and become one with the place, how to ride on the thermals with the eagle.’ As the sumptuous paintings of the Mergich Realm—all stark ice-blues and brooding purple skies—are shot through with the contrasting blood-red and yellow illustrations of the fire-bringing humans, so the simple and mythic tale is shot through with a subtle message. Snow leopards are extremely endangered animals, and Morris conveys mankind’s troubling impact on the environment and divorce from the natural world. She reminds us to pay heed to creatures like the snow leopard and the protective work of the mysterious Mergichans, before they disappear in ‘a whisper of starlight’.

In The Ice Bear, we meet another shape-shifting child. Born a polar bear and stolen by a raven, the child is raised as human boy by adoptive parents until his seventh year. Tricked again by the raven, he follows a trail of amber stones until he is lost, his tracks behind him wiped out by fresh snow. After a search that freezes his bones and his hopes, he lies down, irresistibly, to sleep. He awakes surrounded by bears, and learns the secret of his birth. Now, he must make a decision. Will he return to his bear-kin and his birthright, or return to this grief-stricken human parents who loved him and raised him?

The Ice Bear is raw and elemental. The human hunters survive the winter on diminishing stores of seal and hare, traipsing over the ice, swaddled in bundles of clothing. However, Morris fires the bleak and stretching Arctic vistas with warming details; the golden hearth of the hunters, their bright clothing, the phantasmal Northern Lights blazing in the sky. The blues and purples of the vast skies and ice-plains are thawed by the bears’ luxurious fur, honeyed yellow and gold. Morris’ Arctic is sensuous, the polar bears not lumbering, but sinewy and mercurial, welcome curls of colour in their icy world.

The Ice Bear’s prose, like that of The Snow Leopard, has the mythic, fey quality of the fairy-tale. Again, fantastical happenings forge sacred connections between nature and people. The beginning of the book tells of a simpler time, when people and animals lived in harmony, when ‘the air was pure, clear as crystal’ and ‘words held magic’. Before being an artist, Jackie Morris wanted to be a bear, and in this book she paints a world where this might be possible, where humans and bears are ‘One spirit, one heart, one soul, one people.’

Tell Me a Dragon by Jackie Morris

In Tell Me a Dragon (published in June), the real world is left far behind as each page transports readers to a different time and place. Each page introduces a new person’s dragon, as diverse as the owners themselves. Some are so small they can curl around a human ear, some eat flowers, whilst others are elemental: fire dragons, sea dragons and ice dragons. This new edition includes ‘field-notes’, a small dose of dragon-lore to help children (and adults) imagine their own scaly friends. With less prose, this book is more of a poem than a story, allowing the pictures take centre-stage. Once again they do not disappoint.

Morris takes us to many lands and climes: from purple-spired fairy-tale castles to egg-laden caves, from Arctic seas to urban cityscapes. In these fantastical settings, Morris is in her element, her sweeping strokes a conjuring act in bringing the magnificent and stately dragons to life. The world she has created on each page requires thorough exploring, and keen eyes will unearth much charming detail; dragon tails curl far off in the distance to encircle the moon, other, Earthly creatures stalk the pages too, at risk of being overlooked next to the imposing dragons.

Morris’ picture books aren’t things to be gobbled whole, like a greedy dragon might. But ones to be lingered over, books to sweep your hands over, be spell-bound by. No wonder then, that with The Lost Words, she has the nation enchanted.

Eleanor Howe is completing an MA in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University’s Department of English and Creative Writing.

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previous review: Creed (Honno Welsh Women’s Classics Series)
next review: The Golden Orphans


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