Picture book biography

Picture book biography

by Alexandra Wallner, illus. by John Wallner

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s life story, though seasoned with personal tragedies is, typical for a man of his time, class and upbringing. There was nothing flashy about Tolkien, but he was an extraordinary man all the same: a loyal and loving family man, a courageous soldier, a scholar, teacher, advisor, and friend. He was a man in love with words: the rhythm and shape of them, the resonant beauty of sound and meaning, and the magic he could make with them. Tolkien was a gifted storyteller with an incredible eye for detail.

Tolkien’s childhood introduced him to the wonders and dangers of a variety of environments. He was born in wild, wondrous – and often dangerous — South Africa, where he lived with his family as a small child. From untamed South Africa, Tolkien’s newly widowed mother moved Tolkien and his brother to the verdant peace of the English countryside. Eventually she enrolled the boys in a school in Birmingham and moved the family to the grimy, raucous city where Tolkien watched the trains charge through, reading aloud the names of the boxcars from Wales, captivated by the musical lilt of Welsh, so different from the rhythmic tattoo of English.

Fascinated by history and folklore, Tolkien was frustrated by the lack of legends about England, and began to write his own. After publishing his highly successful children’s book, The Hobbit, Tolkien spent many years painstakingly crafting his epic saga, The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien carefully constructed the world of his novels, complete with countries, societies, cultures, and languages for the various races he conceived.

Alexandra Wallner’s text tells the story of Tolkien’s life simply and directly, focusing on the frequent connections between the writer’s ordinary life and his remarkable conceptions. Mundane details often inspired Tolkien; they were his starting point, anchors for the fantasies he wove. The name of his aunt’s home (Bag’s End) and a postcard he bought depicting an old man talking to a white fawn (which he labeled “Origin of Gandalf”) filtered through his incredible imagination and emerged as bits and pieces of his marvelous worlds. Alexandra Wallner sums up Tolkien’s life expertly; her prose is inviting and eminently readable and her introduction of J.R.R. Tolkien is clear, interesting, and never overwhelming for the reader.

John Wallner’s engaging, playful illustrations depict Tolkien’s life as a children’s game populated by his novels’ characters; the most important events explode in bright, colorful paintings along the twisting, turning path of the game board, while details appear as game cards or march along the game’s path. John Wallner’s illustrations exude warmth and charm, perfectly complementing his wife’s text. As luxurious, colorful, and detailed as Tolkien’s writing, Wallner’s illustrations will likewise keep readers coming back again and again. Alexandra and John Wallner’s J.R.R. Tolkien is inviting and original as well as being an excellent read and exceptionally visually appealing. A bibliography, time line and source notes are appended.


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