Zubert – by Charlie Sutcliffe

Released by Tate Publishing in 2013, Zubert is a picture book so rich in detail that it almost defies definition. It joins a growing number of books in the picture book genre in which words are superfluous, but which nevertheless contain complex narrative plots and subplots.

Zubert lives with his family in London and his favourite colour is red. He helps his Mum deliver floral arrangements to smart London hotels and it is while he is visiting the Savoy one day that he meets a distressed spinglefrank who needs help hiding a whole host of animals before the hotel inspectors arrive. The scene is set, the plot is launched and so the adventure begins. Join Zubert as he embarks on a madcap chase through the hotel to help the spinglefranks (who are just a little bit magic) hide buffalo, monkeys, an octopus and elephants (who are more than a little bit bent on mischief) before the inspectors reach each room. All’s well that ends well, and after all, it’s only a little boy’s daydream while he’s waiting for his Mum. Or is it? What is he holding behind his back in the final opening? And what is the spinglefrank doing with the tin of polish?

That is the surface layer of the narrative. So far, so good. The words, as if to reinforce their redundancy, are small and insignificant, tucked away in the corners of each page and denied any opportunity to intrude on the story. But don’t be misled into thinking that you’ve read the book. You’ve only just begun.

I don’t want to spoil the experience, so suffice it to say that the subtext is great fun and here are a few questions to set you thinking. Why is there a letter C crossing the road? Are flags and balloons significant? What is the onion’s story? And the ants’ story? Check the endpapers – what is the significance of the Lost and Found cupboard contents? (I’ve found most of them, so I reckon they must all be between the covers of the book somewhere.) What is Kaspar’s back story, such that he ends up as a wallpaper monogram? And why do so many characters carry cases? What might be in them? Each of the above questions represents a story in its own right.

It would be difficult to choose the greatest strength of this book. The complex layered narrative is certainly one strength, but so is the use of colour (50s retro meets vibrant modern), shape (check out the clouds for a surreal experience) and space (in which single rooms and spaces are viewed by the reader from contrasting perspectives). The references across and between different parts of the story make for interesting detective reading, while clever touches such as fish and chips, book titles, suitcase labels, page numbers and signage provide a subtle humour which both reflects and contrasts with the inherent humour of the main story.

I’ve spent hours reading this book and I don’t think I’ve exhausted all the story strands yet. I thoroughly recommend this for all advocates of, and teachers of, visual literacy – with image storying of this quality, who needs words?

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