The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers (HarperCollins Children’s Books 2010)

The title of this book by artist Oliver Jeffers caught my eye when I was at Milpera State School. I was waiting for the bell to signal the end of class and the beginning of my creative writing session in the library with the kids.

Oliver Jeffers is probably best known for his paintings and second book Lost and Found which was turned into an award-winning animated short film that won over 60 awards. At least three of his children’s books were on The New York Times Best Seller list. There’s a reason for this. Jeffers has a way of telling an emotional story by harnessing the power of simplicity.

In The Heart and the Bottle a little girl is filled with open wonder for the world around her. Sparse dreamy pictures show how she interprets the universe that her grandfather describes, until one day when she runs to see him and his chair is empty. The little girl decides to protect her heart by putting it in a bottle and hanging it around her neck. As she grows, her world becomes smaller and loses its vibrancy and colour.

”She was no longer filled with all the curiosities of the world and didn’t take much notice of anything… other than how heavy… and awkward the bottle had become. But at least her heart was safe.”

It’s only when she meets a younger person who is still open to the world that she is reminded of what she’s missing but she can no longer get her heart out of the bottle. The child helps her retrieve her heart.

With few words, Jeffers tells a story of great loss, grief, loneliness and the hope that follows if we can open our hearts again.

This book appeals to the many parts of ourselves that we harbour inside our protective layers thickened by death and hurt and humiliation: to the children who once loved with open abandon before we learned to hide our emotions; to the adult who learns from the innocent questioning of young children; to the person who tries to understand that if we sidestep our own vulnerability we will not be able to live the wholehearted lives that US research professor Brené Brown talks about.

It can teach us as writers too. Jeffers reminds us of the power of the blank space to articulate and capture emotions and of the binding strength of a single image. We do not need many words to tell a story, to show intense emotion, to connect with other human beings. A few chosen words pared with a simple image is more effective than outlining every detail. There is beauty in allowing the reader to make intellectual and emotional jumps as they create the story with us.

I can’t help but think that Jeffers is suggesting that understanding and connecting come from unexpected places. That maybe we all talk too much and need to listen more. That a full and colourful life requires risk.

For more information on Vulnerability read here.

If you’d like to know more about Oliver Jeffers you can link through to his website.

Go here to buy The Heart and the Bottle and Jeffers’ other books or creations.