Jack has the most amazing dreams but the trouble with dreams, he ponders, is that you're always asleep when you have them. How wonderful it would be to capture your dreams and bring them home to enjoy in your waking hours too! So one night Jack sets out on a surreal journey through colourful, magical landscapes to fill his sack with dreams, a journey which takes him to the giant Fruit Salad Tree which is smack-bang in the middle of Dreamtime. What will happen when Jack hauls his dreamsack home to the Hohum Humdrum Waking World? Rest assured, some astonishing things are about to happen.
This is an extraordinary children's book which creates a mesmerising fantasy world. Its whimsical style and colourful, often weird illustrations remind me a little of Yellow Submarine. There is the sort of visual imagery in this book that I think the Beatles could have incorporated into a psychedelic song or two, but it's all very child-friendly.
What I like is that Laurence Anholt conjures up a dream world that is not twee and all sweetness and light. There are some slightly peculiar elements to it too which, although not overly dark or sinister, do evoke a mixture of emotions. For example, there is something a little bit eerie about the Finger Forest, the Human Zoo and the 'wild and dangerous book maze.' The broken rainbow is a beautiful but rather sad image, whereas the leaping river is vibrant and happy and makes Jack feel good. I think this book's ability to trigger such a range of emotional reactions in the reader is what makes it so memorable and so stimulating.
This book is a very perceptive portrayal of the world of dreams, like an updated Alice in Wonderland where things which make no sense by real-world standards are accepted without question in the dream land. It is also a world where things happen in a topsy-turvy order to the real world. For example, Jack sees a baby pushing a grown man in a pram. He also sees a small white snail dog, a nest full of pigs' eggs, a chair wearing trousers and -- our particular favourite - telephones with beards!
It's a good introduction to very basic psychology, exploring the subject of our subconscious and why our dreams take on such bizarre forms. It's a chance for children to discuss some of the dreams they have had. They can also have lots of fun, thinking up their own versions of the weird and wonderful things they see in this book. For example, can they design an uncomfortable chair of their own to rival the spiky cactus armchair that Jack sees? Can they invent an incredible bed or an unlikely car, inspired by the ones in Dreamtime? Perhaps it would be enjoyable for children to draw their creations.
I love the way the book provides a sharp contrast between Jack's waking world and his dream world. The book starts with Jack in the bath with his rubber duck, in a perfectly ordinary but dull bathroom that has black and white tiles on the floor. We then spot the old fashioned telephone in the hallway and the alarm clock by his bed. It implies an ordered, structured world. When Jack arrives in Dreamtime, however, the pictures become instantly brighter and wackier, with all kinds of colours, shapes and angles filling the pages. Jack's structured life has been replaced by something unpredictable and a bit crazy.
My favourite picture of all is of Jack on the top twig of the Fruit Salad Tree, about to reach out to collect the dreamseed. Up to this point, the pictures of the dream world have been very bright and colourful but this picture has a shadowy, almost frosty, moonlit quality which makes it particularly evocative and underlines that this is a pivotal moment in the story.
Although I feel that it is the illustrations that really make this book special, Laurence Anholt's narrative tone and beautiful imagery conveys the dreamy atmosphere perfectly. I love his references to the centre of Dreamtime as "the very belly button of all dreams everywhere." It becomes a kind of sleepy, cosy catchphrase for the whole book. I also love the way he uses repetition of key words to build the tension. For example, "up, and up, and up" when the dreamtree is starting to grow and 'down, down, down" as Jack crawls down to the "deep delightful dreamtime." The effect is almost hypnotic.
The quirky humour adds to the book's appeal. I like the fact that when Jack sets out on his quest he takes with him "a sack to put his dreams in and a clean white handkerchief to blow his nose with." This line sums up the contrast between Jack's two worlds perfectly. Towards the end of the book I love the way the dog gets in on the action, which adds a bit of humour.
I think this book would appeal to children who like traditional fairy tales as there are obvious similarities to Jack and the Beanstalk, but with a zany new take on it. To younger children this may just be a story about a little boy who goes on an amazing adventure to collect dreams, but older children may appreciate it on different levels. The book encourages children to think about how our waking lives shape the dreams we have when we sleep and vice versa. How can we capture our hopes and dreams without having a dreamsack like Jack's?
I think this book sends out a very positive message to children that reality can be as good as, if not better than, our dreams and it inspires us to pay attention to our dreams and to learn from them, the most important thing being that sometimes we need to let go of preconceptions and structure and just go with the flow.
It's ideal for reading aloud to children and obviously makes a super bedtime story. Because the illustrations are so plentiful and descriptive, they can carry the story very well without the need for much text, so even pre-readers who have had this story read to them can enjoy turning the pages of this book for themselves and re-telling it from the pictures.
Although there are some slightly complicated descriptive phrases - such as the bellybutton image I referred to - in most cases the author uses simple words and there is much repetition so that words can be easily recognised. I therefore think that children aged around 5 or 6 would be able to have a go at reading this book independently.
Jack and the Dreamsack can be purchased new from Amazon sellers from £1.44.