Emily Gravett (winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal) outdid herself once again with Old Hat, the whimsical tale of a creature named Harbet. As both author and illustrator, Gravett takes her readers on a journey through a world that feels equally cartoon-ish and familiar. The illustrations in Old Hat compliment and enhance the text perfectly, in a way that may very well only be possible when the same hands that wrote the characters into existence bring those characters to life in illustration. Gravett’s work is bright, vibrant, and intricate, and tells the heartwarming story of one little creature’s journey to be himself boldly.
While most pages contain text that is consistent in font and structure, the text (particularly the phrase “OLD HAT!”) is used to convey emotion and does so quite effectively. “OLD HAT!” is used multiple times throughout the book, and each time is paired with illustrations that make the reader feel the exclusion that Harbet must feel in that moment. While several pages contain text describing multiple events in the sequence of the story, the text is located next to isolated illustrations that clarify the order in which the reader should approach the page.
Gravett’s charming illustrations stand alone in much of the book, without backgrounds or embellishments to distract from the characters themselves. The illustrations are eye-catching and vibrant, with their texture seeming to pop off the page. The illustrations, which are so focused on the characters, add a depth of emotion to the text that does not exist if one simply reads the words on the page. Gravett manages to make her readers feel what her characters must be feeling and draws her readers into the story that way. The illustrations in this work in particular tell pieces of the story that are never made explicit in the text. At the end of the story, Harbet decides that he does not need to wear a hat, and the reader sees for the first time that Harbet actually has colorful feathers sticking up out of the top of his head! I did not realize until that moment that I had never seen Harbet without his hat on, and I went back to the beginning of the book to check that I had not simply missed his colorful plumage somehow. I had not; Gravett used her illustrations to finish telling the story that the text in her book had begun.
It truly amazes me that cartoon characters can present readers with such familiar feelings, such as feeling excluded or not feeling confident in who you are. Harbet goes on a journey to accept and embrace himself boldly, and I think we all agree that he is better off because of that! While different people experience these emotions differently, all people (at some level) can relate to being made to feel “other.” Watching Harbet’s tale unfold will impact readers differently, but the message being shared will hold meaning for readers of all ages. I would be most likely to read this book out loud to children in the lower elementary grades, but reading Gravett’s work is an experience for all readers, an experience which I cannot recommend highly enough.