A Tale that Sparks Wonder
Books about giants (I am thinking about Roald Dahl’s BFG (“big friendly giant”)) might be told to children but often are just as important for adults. My guess is that children can easily relate to giants as they find themselves living on a daily basis among lesser ones – lesser giants who are bigger than they are, run faster maybe and might at times deign to pick them up and put them on their shoulders. Adults, on the other hand, may have forgotten the world of giants they once inhabited.
Neil Christopher’s picture book, On the Shoulder of a Giant is one of those books about giants that I think is meant for both children and adults. Though presented as a picture book, On the Shoulder of a Giant is a book that transports you – yes, to a place far north in the Arctic tundra, a land devoid of trees where giants might yet roam, but also, perhaps more importantly, to that wild space of our imagination that we (adults or children) need to revisit from time and again in order to better understand the dimensions of our world.
On the Shoulder of a Giant is written in clear, sparse text that invites us into the story of a great (friendly) giant named Inukpak (great giants, we are told, are creatures as big as mountains) who meets a human hunter in the Arctic tundra one day and adopts him as his son. It is a retelling of an Inuit folktale. Christopher takes us to the moment of the meeting – human and giant:
“The hunter was terrified! He had never seen a giant before. And he did not understand why the giant had referred to him as a child, as he was an adult. But before the hunter could say anything or run away, Inukpak lifted the man up and put him on his shoulder.”
To giants, of course, we humans are small beings. We might be children to them. Whales to them are like sculpin and polar bears are baby foxes or lemmings. And in the midst of the hunter’s awe, we also see captured in Christopher’s beautiful, laconic prose the wonder and mirth of the great giant. Inukpak is a being full of laughter.
The juxtaposition of awe and mirth that emanates from the tale is wonderfully captured by illustrator Jim Nelson’s artwork. We see the towering hulk of the great giant, his face almost always breaking into a laugh. The landscapes behind the hunter and the giant are spectacular, wondrous and evince how the world might appear so dramatically different to a human hunter (who had never seen the sea to know what it was) compared to a great giant (who could walk across the entire Arctic in a few days).
Nevertheless, the muted tones (browns, greys and blues) shared between hunter, giant and the land seem to bind each to the other – there would be no giant story without the human (and vice versa) and this human-giant story seems ever embedded in the wonder of the Arctic landscape as human and giant are compared with each other through their interaction with the land and its wildlife (for example, the giant fishes out a whale from the sea as if it were a small fish while the hunter keeps wanting to tell the giant that this was not a small fish but a bowhead whale).
The book is published by Inhabit Media, an Inuit-owned publishing company based in Iqaluit, Nunavut and, to their knowledge, the only independent publishing company in the Canadian Arctic. Inhabit Media encourages Arctic residents to share their stories and knowledge and is dedicated to preserving the rich storytelling culture of the Inuit. This book is a beautiful testament to that effort.
On the Shoulder of a Giant is a wonderful book to share with a child (it is after all in the friendly giant category) but also a book to share with those of the older ilk. The story and artwork are completely mesmerizing. If you find yourself on a winter’s night (or perhaps out among the woods by a camp fire) searching for a tale to tell, this would be one that you should reach for. A work of art. A tale that sparks wonder. It is storytelling as a high art.