Once there were two boys, a city boy and a country boy, and they grew up to be very different. The country boy was a writer, but his stories made the village leaders angry and they put him in prison to make him stop writing. The city boy was a guard in the prison, and he wasn’t allowed to give the country boy the letters that people sent him. But they were united by the beautiful stamps on the letters, which reminded the writer that he still had friends. Even when people aren’t allowed to be friends, there are always things to bring them together.
I met Jennifer Lanthier at the Forest of Reading breakfast at the OLA Super Conference last January. I picked up her book because it was a part of a library display where I’m volunteering, and it’s a lovely and evocative story. The writer and the guard have very specific roles, and the guard is afraid of getting in trouble like the writer, but he takes pity on someone who is alone and didn’t do anything bad to deserve being put in prison. The guard collects stamps because they are beautiful. He takes the stamps from the letters to the writer because they are lovely, but he sees that the writer needs to know that he is not alone and forgotten. The bright stamps from all of the different lands remind him that there are people outside who care about him and about his stories. He is not forgotten. The guard gives him not just the stamps, but the gift of remembrance. The writer finds his hope, and the guard finds his courage.
Francois Thisdale’s illustrations are lovely and dreamlike, and suit the quasi-fairy tale ambience perfectly. The deep colours used, greens and blues and browns and grays, emphasize that this is a sad story, but the white and the gold and the bright stamps remind you that there are good spots even in the sadness. It’s dark, but it’s beautiful.
Lanthier’s end note says that the story is not based on any two particular people, but that many writers have been jailed in different countries for angering the authorities. She also talks about PEN International, an organization that advocates for imprisoned writers, and that a portion of the proceeds of the book goes to PEN Canada.
Stamps are such an everyday thing. You can never find one when you need to mail a letter, and you grumble about them when Canada Post has yet again raised the price. But stamps aren’t just pieces of paper. Stamps guide messages across the entire world. Stamps connect people from far away and from the other side of the bars.