Today’s perfect picture book confirms that, yes, a picture book can be vitally relevant to adults and children, relating basic truths about our lives and how we interact with our world. That the picture book as an art object can do this in so few words continues to thrill me.
Fausto is a man accustomed to owning things. Not just his impeccable clothes or his meticulously coifed mustached. He’s used to owning the world, from the smallest flower to the most massive mountain. But the sea? La mer? The body of water that covers most of this planet—she (and I use the pronoun she in both the classic and metaphorical sense)—she’s not buying what he’s selling. But I get ahead of myself.
Here we’re introduced to our main character.
Is it just me, or does this man look British? (An aside: Oliver Jeffers is originally from Northern Ireland, so who knows what the subconscious or conscious political intent may have been.) Fausto looks like a man who’s used to owning everything within his realm and wherever his conquests take him.
Another quick aside: After reading Fausto, I was struck by a quote from yesterday’s NY Times Magazine article titled “Abandoning Everything You Ever Believed For Brexit. (Or Trump.)” The writer described the now Twitter-infamous “Turtleneck Man” who stood up on a BBC political discussion show and said, “Why doesn’t it, you know, this is going to sound crazy, but Ireland being referred to as Ireland—the island of Ireland—why don’t we try and just get that as an island again. And then we can carry on with our own thing.”
The writer goes on to point out “…that, while expressing vague warm wishes for Ireland, this man doesn’t appear to know, either politically or geographically, what it actually is.”
Ironically, I thought this quote from Turtleneck Man sounded like many of the misinformed, convoluted statements produced by our president during a press conference (if we still had those), but only if the “this is going to sound crazy” part had been excised for obvious reasons.
Is it hubristic to be so ignorant of one’s not-so-distant history? It does make the case for teaching kids to be critical thinkers.
Yes, this does have something to do with this book. Consider Fausto to be a metaphorical history lesson and/or lesson about our relative “position” on this planet.
Fausto sets off to survey all he owns, starting with a flower.
“You are mine,” said Fausto to the flower.
“Yes,” said the flower. “I am yours.”
So he plucks the flower, makes it his bouttonière, and bullies onward.
He claims a sheep (metaphor for the masses?), a tree, a field, a forest. All acquiesce to being owned by the man—all except the lake who at first pretends not to hear his claim.
But when Fausto throws a tantrum, he shows the lake “who’s boss.” Fausto moves on to the next thing, a mountain.
“Mountain, you are mine!”
But the mountain disagrees.
He keeps turning more and more neon orange (some may see this color as an orange-pink). Remind you of anyone?
The mountain stands firm.
Look at those deranged eyes bulging above that manicured mustache. And the neon rage.
We are then treated to a masterful pageturn, only to find the word “eventually” on a blank spread. The vastness of that word….
Then another pageturn leads us to—
the mountain bowing down before the man. NOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo! Don’t do it! What will happen now?! Will Fausto be satisfied? Will he sit on the mountaintop, king of all he surveys?
We turn the page to find Fausto “feeling important” but still not satisfied. He easily conquers a boat to head out to sea.
Fausto finds satisfaction only in the moment of victory and then needs—MORE. Ownership is not what truly matters to Fausto, it is the conquering, the winning that defines his existence—a most fleeting feeling. In the absence of that feeling, he is worthless, unseen, a meaningless and powerless speck in the universe. It must be terrible to be Fausto on an endless quest to maintain a sense of self with such a short half-life.
In his quest for conquering, he must now claim the sea.
“Sea, you are mine.”
But the sea was silent.
He repeats his claim. And we wait. The sea finally responds quietly, ominously: “You do not own me.”
Fausto insists, although the sea’s disembodied voice appears to “come from everywhere.” Clue the Jaws music, yes?
With trepidation, we turn the page and see a tiny Fausto afloat in his tiny boat on a horizon-to-horizon, blue sea.
Fausto lies to the sea, saying he loves it. But the sea, and Fausto, knows he is lying.
The sea continues to question Fausto’s motives, and he responds by saying the sea is wrong. And this is where the illustration provides a masterful stroke: Fausto and his boat are now as blue as the sea, foreshadowing what comes next. Only his reflection in the surface of the sea glows that neon orange-pink.
Fausto has had it. He becomes crazed yet again in the face of the sea’s defiance. He goes so far as to step outside the boat to “stamp his foot on the sea.”
Two wordless spreads later, the boat rocks silently in the sea, a tiny neon splash and a vague, ghostlike Fausto disappears below the surface.
Poor Fausto doesn’t know how to swim.
Another masterful image shows the boat floating on a mostly white page with only a hint of an outline of the sea. Our focus turns to a tiny neon orange-pink flower floating next to the boat. The buttonnière survives.
All of Fausto’s “properties” continue on as if Fausto never existed.
Some might ask the question: Did Fausto’s actions deserve death? I would venture to say that human laws do not apply to this situation. In the natural world, reckless actions often end in death. And sometimes even the most prudent actions bring about death. Nature is not moral, it just is.
I feel compelled now to return to the NYTimes article where the author writes:
“Like a toddler struggling with object permanence, the U.K. acts as if other countries exist only when it chooses to look at them.”
This also reminds me of a certain orange person….
I would say that Fausto depicts a flipped version of this statement when applied to man vs. nature. In our collective effort to “defeat” or “control” nature, to convince ourselves that nature exists for us to “see” and “own,” that things only exist when we turn our gaze in their direction, we witness the opposing truth: It is nature that continually claims us. A tornado, a hurricane, a flood, a drought, a plague. Our planet will have the last laugh. But that’s really a misstatement. For as this book points out, we do not matter to nature, to our planet, to the universe. It’s a truth we must live with, one that is both awesome and humbling.
Lots to chew on with this book. A fable for the ages.
Take a walk outside. Appreciate all that nature shows you, without having to own it. Think about how taking wildflowers, rocks, shells, plants, etc. from their natural habitat is a form of ownership.
Pair this book with Barb Rosenstock’s THE CAMPING TRIP THAT CHANGED AMERICA: Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and Our National Parks.
Use a map of Earth or a globe to understand the immensity of the ocean. Does it seem right for anyone to own the ocean? Older children can research how countries address this question.
Older children can research and discuss how different cultures view property ownership.
Title: The Fate of Fausto: A Painted Fable
Author/Illustrator: Oliver Jeffers
Publisher: Philomel, 2019
Themes: greed, environment, justice
For more perfect picture book recommendations, please visit Susanna Hill’s blog.