You know those weird picture books? You know the ones I mean- bizarre storyline, esoteric illustrations, unrelatable characters, not kid-friendly at all? Usually it only takes a few pages in to discover a dud. Sometimes, however, a weird picture book can mask itself as a benign, whimsical tale- perfect, you might think, for storytime. In the case of Ophelia, it took me to nearly the last page to go, “Huh…..Wait, WHAT?”
Ophelia is a hippo who awakens from her slumber in the jungle waters by the voice of her friend, Kevin. Kevin complains of having butterflies in his stomach. Alarmed, Ophelia sets off to bring help. She meets Meerkat, who advises that she bring Kevin a hot-water bottle. When Meerkat runs into Frog, the circumstances of Kevin’s illness change to “a terrible cramp” and a sore throat. Frog suggests some herbal tea. As the animals rush off to find the required remedies, they run into other friends. With each successive encounter, Kevin’s illness grows exponentially in severity in a wacky jungle-version game of Telephone.
The Schuberts’ illustrations are truly captivating. The soft watercolors, combined with the vibrant greens of the foliage and the shifting oranges, blues, and pinks of the jungle-sky throughout the day are magnificent. The animal’s body language and facial expressions capture, in turns, their alarm, urgency, and ultimately, confusion. They are funny to follow- and the dialogue reads well.
Unfortunately, this cute and silly romp through the jungle suddenly takes a dark turn into Strangeville towards the end. One of the animals suggests that Kevin is dead. “‘Dead?’ yelled Meerkat, Frog, Porcupine, and Rhino.” As the SLJ reviewer observed, “the discussion of death in an otherwise lighthearted tale is a bit disconcerting for the intended audience.” Indeed. But that’s not even the most bizarre. As Kevin emerges from the forest in good heath and certainly alive, it comes to light that he was never sick. He was, as Ophelia explains, “just a little nervous about being in love.” Okay, weird, right? But hang on to your hat. (SPOILER ALERT) Here’s the last bit of dialogue: “‘Does being in love kill you?’ asked Frog. ‘No,’ Toucan said. ‘But it sure is contagious.” Depicted on this last spread is each animal pairing up with a friend for a smooch on the lips (well, everyone except Frog who looks totally freaked out. And really, who could blame him?)
Previous to this final interaction, there was no indication of love, lovesickness, or any interactions (either via the illustrations or the story) that would allow the reader to predict such a conclusion. As the Kirkus reviewer noted, the ending “will likely leave readers feeling cheated.”
I’d love to know if anyone else has encountered this book and if they were as disappointed by the ending as I was.