Emmett and Caleb

Authored by Karen Hottois
Illustrated by Delphine Renon
Published by Book Island

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Few picturebooks have moved me in the way Emmett and Caleb has. Each time I reread the text and gaze at the charming illustrations, I notice something new. This picturebook, translated from the French in 2018, deals with love, life and loss. The main characters, Emmett and Caleb, are friends and neighbours, and their relationship is slowly revealed.

Springtime: Their daily rituals are described together with the quiet consideration that, most of the time, Emmett shows Caleb. The focus is on a familiar, loving companionship, which is reinforced as they enjoy the changes in the seasons.

Summertime: This is all about the expression of love and about Caleb wanting to give Emmett the perfect birthday present: ‘A gingerbread man, a sea-unicorn’s horn or a pair of sandals… A mammoth’s tooth, a knot that never ends or a bag for his treasures?’ We then have my favourite, albeit heartbreaking, part of the story. Caleb writes Emmett a poem, and it is not received as well as he had hoped. Here is a lesson for teachers everywhere: ‘Emmett thought back to those crossings out and spelling mistakes. “If I’d looked more carefully, I’d have seen that it was as precious as the pearls on a necklace!”’ Thankfully this miscommunication is soon sorted with Emmett sending Caleb a ‘single sheet of blank paper’ as he whispers through the door ‘My poem is invisible to the eye!

Autumn: We move on to the acceptance of loss as Emmett sweeps up the fallen leaves while Caleb becomes melancholy as he reflects on the end of summer. Emmett wraps him in a shawl, and they go for a walk through the forest so that they can smell and taste the gifts of autumn gathering mushrooms, hazelnuts and apples.

Wintertime: We are introduced to their friends as they celebrate Caleb’s birthday. Here the theme is very much self-expression. Emmett’s gift to Caleb’s is tiny, ‘the flutter of an eyelash’. While at the party ‘the girls danced and danced and danced. The boys fell over, fell about and fell in love.’ The story ends with Emmett once again wrapping Caleb up to keep him warm ‘Together, like that, they could last the whole winter.’

The wonderfully original illustrations by Delphine Renon are integral to the text. The style reminds me of folk art with the pastel palette, curved lines and decisive use of black and white. The drawings complement the story and give the story a visual balance and rhythm.

I have found this beautiful, gentle story difficult to place in terms of school. Ultimately it can work on many levels. In Key Stage One, children could discuss misunderstandings and the mending of a friendship. While in Key Stage Two and above the empathy expressed in the story is boundless and could lead to rich discussions about appreciating difference.