A Storyteller’s Journey

J.R.R. Tolkien
By Alexandra Wallner
Illustrated by John Wallner
(Holiday House,New York, 2011, $17.95)

Although J.R.R Tolkien was born at the end of the 19th century, he had a life worthy of a sprawling Victorian novel. Growing up in South Africa and the English countryside, he lost both his parents by the time he was twelve and endured overbearing relations and guardians. He developed a serious fever and lost dear friends in the trenches of France during World War I. Eventually, he found ordinary happiness: marriage, children, a professorship at Oxford. But Tolkien’s was an extraordinary ordinariness. With his vivid imagination and rare ability to construct other languages and worlds, he wrought The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and other works of literary fantasy.

In J.R.R. Tolkien, Alexandra Wallner and her husband, illustrator John Wallner, have crafted a picture-book biography of the author. John Wallner’s illustrations emphasize the journey motif present in most of Tolkien’s books: a yellow-brick road that resembles a gameboard winds through each double-page spread. Scenes and characters from Tolkien’s life and from his imaginary worlds flit over the road, further developing his story. Alexandra Wellner’s narrative traces his development as a writer, emphasizing the real-life places and names that stayed with young Tolkien and eventually inspired his best-known work.

Despite its magical illustrations, J.R.R. Tolkien is more a middle-grade biography with pictures than a picture-book biography. The prose is too dense and the illustrations too text-dependent for the youngest children. But for older children, those at least advanced enough to listen attentively to The Hobbit read out loud, J.R.R. Tolkien is an enchanting introduction to the writer’s life and the creative process itself.

Dorothy A. Dahm

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