Russell Hoban was a multi-faceted writer who treated both his audiences — children and adults — with same respect as he offered even-toned works that sometimes moved in the realm of wacky humor, other times more philosophical and even spiritual areas. With his children’s books specifically, there is the side of the room populated by his Frances and Captain Najork books, while Jim’s Lion (Amazon) sits comfortably on the opposite side, with emotionally heavier works like The Sea Thing Child and A Mouse And His Child.
The story, at its core, finds Jim lying in a hospital bed, terminally ill and being taken care of by a nurse named Bami, noted as a tribal African, who offers Jim advise on how to deal with his fear of dying and the reality of it happening one day. Part of this involves Jim needing to decide on an operation, balancing it against his fear of death, and Bami guides him through the concept of a spiritual guide that will exist in Jim’s subconscious and dream states that he can latch onto in order to place himself and find his way back to the living.
In this case, it’s a chosen animal, with the explanation that “The real thing is always more than you’re ready for,” from Bami, words that could be applied to many aspects of life.
But the words aren’t the only stars in this version of Hoban’s tale. They share space with word-less comics pages that capture the more fantastical aspect of Jim’s mystical quest to find an anchor to life. This aspect of the work by Alexis Deacon is more than just illustration. It’s both an expansion of what Hoban originally offered and more precise exploration of what was already there, rendering Jim’s dream-like quest in absurdist, even darkly humorous, terms that are reminiscent of Hoban’s own tones, even in other, more light-hearted books. As Deacon shows Jim gasping through his fears unhinged and later auditioning the animals and seeing his chosen do its work, the story is placed on two further levels at once. Deacon brings the mystical down to earth, but he also keeps it mysterious and other-worldly.
When alternated with Hoban’s precise, calm passages, Jim’s Lion becomes a sort of Jekyll-Hyde book, not meaning that one is good and one is evil, more one section is the public face that we put on when we are with others, while the other section is a more personal, fearful place where we function with honesty and work our way through the darkness. This results almost as a dialogue between Hoban and Deacon, and offers a work of depth that should offer any kid reading it some comfort in not being alone and the assurance that the darkness is not to be ignored, but faced and managed.