Damon is a teenager on holidays with his parents and has been coerced into visiting the art gallery. But he’s bored. None of the artworks make sense. He hates being a tourist, so he turns up his iPod and goes back to the hotel. But even there, he’s bored. The people he watches through the window are boring, his electronic games and the television are boring. So boring he falls asleep. When he’s asleep, he is visited in his dreams by a tiger – and everything changes.
Aaron Hill’s illustrations are hand-in-glove with the text of this picture-story book for older readers. Cast mostly in greyscale, in keeping with the theme of the book, the illustrations are exquisitely detailed pencil-drawn sketches. Where there are splashes of colour, they are welcomed and symbolic.
Gary Crew uses the first and fourth stanza of William Blakes’ poem ‘The Tyger’ as an epigraph to the book. The storyline of Damon could be seen to follow the theme of the poem: Tyger! Tiger! Burning bright/In the forests of the night/What immortal hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry? Having seen the artwork in the gallery, Damon is unaware that an almost subliminal force is at work, calling to life the creativity that lies dormant within him. This awakening is represented by the tiger, which is referenced subtly in the earlier pages of the book by the appearance of a striped tail. The tiger finally emerges from one of the artworks before appearing to Damon in his dream. One of the only coloured two-page spreads in the book depicts the tiger growling and releasing brightly painted finches that fly from its mouth.
Just as Blakes’ poem is full of metaphor, so is the story of Damon. Crew and Hill have produced a book that will certainly serve as a discussion-starter in upper primary and junior secondary classrooms. It is a book that will benefit from multiple readings to eke out the meaning. Damon is a book that will appeal to some more than others. The illustration on the last page is one I found surprising and unnerving. I suspect this will be more a book teachers will pull off the shelf to use with their students than one children themselves would choose to borrow or buy.
Lothian Children's Books 2011
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 26, Issue 3, July 2011)