What’s Up, Maloo? – Geneviève Godbout, Tundra Books, 2020
Geneviève Godbout’s new picture book, her first as both author and illustrator, is about a problem both typical and rare. Maloo is a joey who can’t seem to master the art of hopping, not a problem encountered every day in the natural world. With few words and many pictures in her inimitable cinematic style, the author and artist also tells another and more common story, about young members of any species struggling to achieve an elusive goal. With the encouragement of friends, Maloo joyously succeeds in learning what every young kangaroo must.
When we first meet Maloo, he is able to hop with impressive ease, rising above a field of pink flowers as if in flight. Suddenly, something goes wrong, his disorientation expressed in one word, “Hop?” His friends’ untiring support reassures him that they will try everything to help him become himself again.
When Maloo visits his wombat friend in the fellow-marsupial’s cozy burrow, the joey looks bereft but the wombat is full of empathy, as he puts aside domestic tasks to help Maloo. Along with a koala and a versatile crocodile, the wombat seeks unfamiliar environments and activities to promote hopping: playing ball in the water, and even blowing air in his face with an outdated electric fan. Nothing works.
After a low point, when the four friends appear as sad silhouettes dwarfed by a giant tree, the turning point arrives. The reward for his friends’ perseverance is the opportunity to briefly feel like a kangaroo.
Looking at Maloo in his bright yellow overalls, I was reminded of another children’s classic about a kangaroo with a frustrating limitation. In Emmy Payne and H.A. Rey’s Katy No Pocket, the issue isn’t jumping, but rather the lack of a pouch without which a kangaroo is unable to carry her young. In Katy’s case, the kindness of a human friend, who equips her with a giant apron, allows her to transport not only her own joey, but every baby animal in need of a ride. While I don’t know if the homage to Payne and Rey is deliberate, Geneviève Godbout’s work reflects a tradition of illustration in which the common experiences of childhood become visual (see my reviews of her other illustrations here and here). The energetic appeal of Maloo’s story will be welcomed by every child who has tried, faltered, and tried again.