Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Job for Jane! Extraordinary Jane by Hannah E. Harrison



Jane is a perfectly darling little dog whose talents are---well, undiscovered.

The circus scene is based on spectacle--the largest, the fastest, the most daring, the ultra-rare, the super-duper! There is an elephant who paints like a Rembrandt while balancing on one foot. The tiger leaps through fiery rings as the brilliant Ringmaster shows off his magnificent wild beauty.

Of course, Jane's family members are singularly talented. Her mother poses on one foot, a graceful bareback rider dominating one of the Barnaby Belluchi Circus' three rings. Her look-alike brothers are phenomenal flyers, shot from matching cannons to soar just under the roof of the great tent, while her daring and spangled sisters sashay across the high wire under matching umbrellas.  Her father is a mighty dog, hoisting elephants with one paw.

Surely little Jane has an as yet unrevealed ability like everyone else in her family. Ringmaster is confident that he can find a role for the retiring Jane. He tries out Jane on the trapeze, but it turns out she's more than  anxious; she's acrophobic! Her paintings are prosaic. As a clown, even her seltzer bottle has no fizz. And when Ringmaster tries her out on the huge balancing ball, she threatens to flatten the whole circus family. Ostrich sports five (5!) cervical collars, Elephant has his trunk in a sling, and the ringmaster's whip-wielding arm is broken. Even Tiger has a bandaged tail.

Jane is extraordinarily--unremarkable!

Ever since H.A. Rey's little monkey saved the day at the circus in Curious George Rides a Bike, picture books have featured characters who, when push comes to shove, discover remarkable talents under the Big Top, but Jane is not one of them. Jane is just a really good dog, and that is enough in Hannah Harrison's Extraordinary Jane (Dial Press, 2014.)

In this debut by a promising author-illustrator, Harrison's quintessential circus scenes are as extraordinary as her shaggy heroine is not. Her retro-styled acrylic illustrations of the animals and the crew glow with their own built-in Klieg lights, and her page design zooms from tent-top perspective down to close-ups that show off the characters' rueful reactions to Jane's misadventures.

There is a pathos in this story that will engage readers' sympathies for its uncommonly untalented heroine, and great humor in Harrison's two-page spread which shows the battered but still determined circus cast after Jane's disastrous audition. And above all, there is that certain plucky perseverance in this untalented but eager-to-please pup which shines through. While Jane is no star, Harrison's story has earned its stars from reviewers all around. "A touching, delectably illustrated circus story that applauds the underdog," says Kirkus Reviews.

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