20 February 2009


I was browsing in the children's section of a book shop this week and found this book, Timbuktu, by Paul Auster, adapted and illustrated by Julia Goschke. I really liked the illustration on the front (it's so true that the cover illustration sells the book) gave it a cursory flip through and bought it to add to my growing collection of 'children's books with interesting illustrations'. Well, this book certainly does have excellent illustrations by Ms Goschke, but be warned - in my opinion it is NOT suitable for young children.

Timbuktu, published by Penguin's Young Reader's Group, is a picture book that tells the story of Mr Bones, a dog in the city struggling to understand his old homeless master's life and to learn what it means to fit into human society. Sound a bit heavy? Well, yes, I think it is. This is a dark tale which opens with the death of Mr Bones's owner and ends on an even darker note: this dog decides he wants to join his old owner again in Timbuktu (the after life) and plays with the traffic - in a nutshell, dog death by suicide. How awful! I certainly wouldn't want to try explaining that to a young child, would you?

In the pages between we try to follow Mr Bones's journey as he finds new owners and attempts to come to terms with his new life (which even includes a visit to the vet to be neutered). The story is oddly disconnected and often it's unclear what's actually going on - twice I thought I'd turned over two pages by mistake! Following the thread is also not helped by the, at times, almost unreadable type - the name says it all, 'Misprinted Type'! And, ( if you can bear it) there's more! The vocabulary is just too complex - 'quantifiable substance' and 'infinitesimal slights and injustices' are just a couple of examples that I can see needing much explanation to young readers!

Hmmm, so what do we have here? On the one hand Julia Goschke's vivid illustrations are certainly very appealing. They have impact and with skillful use of light and texture they imaginatively portray the emotions of the story. But on the other we also have a story dealing with social issues and ideas that young readers will not grasp or may even be frightened by. What on earth is this book doing on a shelf along with the likes of 'Each Peach Pear Plum', 'Hairy Maclarey' and 'Mucky Pup'? It clearly doesn't belong there. Well, according to the publishers' website, this book is actually aimed at children aged 12 and up. Yet, nowhere on or in the book can I find mention of this. Alright, so perhaps these older readers will appreciate the content but tell me this - would a self-respecting 12 year old still want to read a picture book? For this is what it is and not the graphic novel it may be masquerading as. Timbuktu seems a bit of a misfit then. Such a pity as the illustrations are so well rendered!

(A page from the book. Click to view this and a few more of Julia Goschke's wonderful illustrations in a larger format.)

I wonder how many bookshops make the error of placing Timbuktu on the picture book shelves and how many unsuspecting parents have bought the book for their youngsters?

The morale of this story then, I guess, is not to buy on impulse or better still read the book from cover to cover before you buy!


  1. Wow, Caroline. I would have to agree with you every step of the way. The illustrations are really intriguing and excellent. But that story! Oh my! Aimed at 12 years and up? Perhaps if it looked more like a graphic novel, but clearly this is a picture book. How curious!

  2. Yes, Bella. Am not usually into critiquing as such, but felt quite strongly about this one! Love the pictures but that story just doesn't work!

  3. Hi Caroline, I also really like the illustrations. very delightful but I agree with you about the story line. Have a great day

  4. And another thing.... To advocate suicide as the solution to your misery -- especially for teens -- is incredibly irresponsible! Argh!

    Ok, I couldn't get this book out of my head today.

  5. Hi Lisa - yes, those illustrations are lovely - the book's saving grace! Very good point, Bella - hope you didn't dwell too much on the book over the weekend!

  6. I found this post really interesting Caroline. I agree the illustrations are lovely (I buy childrens' books for the illustrations too) but the story seems quite depressing. I don't agree with children growing up too quickly. There is plenty of time for them to appreciate the harsh realities of life when they are older.

    I love your kitty. A dead ringer for my brother's cat Pixie. I will have to post a shot of her. She is pregnant at the moment.

    Lastly, love the chicken and fox picture. Beautiful details.

  7. Hi Cathy. Thanks for your comments. Tia cat is beautiful but not much of a lap cat and often takes a swipe - she has very sharp claws! I think you can see her preparing in the photos - she clouted me just after I snapped her!

  8. I really wonder sometimes now what in the world publishers are thinking?! Well, not just publishers, I guess I could include any type of media that markets to children. There is so much out there that is supposed to be for kids, that I find really inappropriate.

  9. wow! very intriguing...it definitely sounds as if it should be placed on the 'graphic novel' shelf where it would be more warmly received....

    love the photos you took of the birds - very stunning creatures!

  10. Hi Caroline.
    I am Julia Goschke, the illustrator of Timbuktu.
    First I want to thank you for the nice words about my illustrations. First I was happy that they did it anyway but I´m really sad about the work or no work penguin did. This project was one for my heart because i loved the novel of Paul Auster. I never thought about a childrenbook. It´s maybe a book for lovers of the novel… or adults who collect picturebooks and who wants to, can show it to their children. Everyones decision. I did everything by my own, contacts, production etc. and I didn´t understand why they are selling it in the children section. But they did what they did. There was no chance to intervene. They don´t ask you.
    I´m really sad about this because it was hard work from start to publishing. Not only for the bad mood people get, but you don´t sell it if it´s not in the right shelf. And selling is hard enough. I did another picture book with them, Langley Longears, and it´s totally different. This is a childrenbook.
    For me it was a great chance, I´m at the start of everything, to have a book like this but not in the way they sell it . Everbody says like you and your comments and the consequence for myself is to think about the way you have to work together in this business. Sorry for the long comment, but I´ve read this kind of criticism a many times and I wanted to say something about it. Have a nice day Julia
    .by the way, nice blog with nice stuff!

  11. When I spend time with young people I am reminded how naive and innocent I was when I was there age and how much more sophisticated and worldly they are now. It's a bit weird and I worry they will be jaded by the time they are 20! I recognize this is a gross generalization but I am worried when I read this post. It made me sad, the dog has such deep eyes and compelling expression. I think this could be ok for young adults but not 12-14 year olds? Considering how many people are dying to have their books published and how in trouble the publishing world is in funny that this would be pushed through for children. But my literary agent is always telling me that most of the things I like are old-fashioned and too cute. Darkness is one of the things that are what they (publishers) are looking for. Excellent review Caroline!


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