April 05, 2017

Uncle Holland

Written by JonArno Lawson
Illustration by Natalie Nelson
Groundwood Books
32 pp.
Ages 4-7
April 2017

Oh, Uncle Holland, he is a scamp! From the time he was a child (and not yet an uncle), Holland was always getting into trouble.  Seems Holland, one of three boys born to Palmer and Ella Lawson (note the last name connection to the author), liked helping himself to pretty things.  After being caught by the police for the thirty-seventh time (!), Holland is given the choice of jail or the army. Though his mother and brothers are devastated, his father "decided to spend the rest of this life watching his fish swim around in his fish tank" because "Fish can't disappoint me." (pg. 11) His mother takes some solace that her son, though a thief, was never a liar.  Holland chooses the army.

From Uncle Holland 
by JonArno Lawson 
illus. by Natalie Nelson
At the southern location to which Holland is sent, there are many splendid and tempting things like palm trees, parrots, flowers and exquisite fish but none he can slip into his pockets.  So Holland chooses to capture the beauty of the fish in paintings, even making some money selling this art. But when he sends money home, his parents are concerned about the origin of that money.  Fortunately, he is able to tell them truthfully that the money was not stolen but instead that he had learned that he could sell pictures of pretty things since "Not everything that's pretty can be stuffed in your pockets."(pg. 30)

You know there's probably more to this story than told here by JonArno Lawson, the author behind the wildly successful Sidewalk Flowers (illustrated by Sydney Smith; Groundwood, 2015), especially since his Author's Note explains that Holland was his Uncle Holland.  But Uncle Holland, the book, is still able to tell a story, caution children about stealing and telling lies, and provide reassurance that one can turn things around.  Okay, we know that you can't turn everything around (some illnesses, death, legal issues, etc.) but I think children would be comforted to know that sometimes you'll get a second chance (even thirty-seven of them) to make things right, though family might appear to turn their backs on you.

American illustrator Natalie Nelson's art, collages of mixed media, are both mischievous and sobering, not unlike Holland's situation.  There is gravitas associated with his infamous acts, often illustrated in neutral shades of black and greys, with only smidgens of colour in tears and fish in water.  Not until Holland is in the southern climes, witnessing beauty that must remain because he cannot squirrel it away, that the colours become vibrant and the art more playful.
From Uncle Holland 
by JonArno Lawson 
illus. by Natalie Nelson
Every family has a relative or two (or many) with incredible stories, some nefarious, some ridiculous, but we don't always like to share those embarrassing anecdotes.  That's unfortunate because they can be, like Uncle Holland, amusing learning and character-building opportunities. Thank you, JonArno Lawson, for choosing to share yours with young readers.

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