When Joseph Coelho was growing up in a London tower block, his favourite storybook adventures began in grand old country houses and rarely featured the city environment he knew so well. But magic can happen anywhere, and a high-rise estate makes the perfect setting for an imaginative fable, as this striking picturebook for older readers demonstrates.
Illustrated in an atmospheric monochrome that gives way to a jewel-bright palette later in the book, Our Tower tells the story of three children who discover a secret world inside a tree, where they meet an ancient entity wielding a power capable of changing everything.
Together, text and images brilliantly evoke the children’s experiences as they peer out of their top-floor flats, set off to find a special tree they’ve noticed beyond their estate, and discover an enchanted kingdom beneath its roots. On a showstopper spread that redirects the action (and the magic) back towards their tower block, the ‘tree-grown man’ extends an ET-style finger and gives the children a gift. Folktale-style, they view their ‘boring, hard, grey’ home through the hole-within-a-stone, only to find it ‘upside-a-diddle’ and wonderfully changed. As ancient songs rise through the earth and spill from the concrete, the windows of their tower look down like loving eyes, and a new kind of enchantment begins to work its magic on the whole community.
Inspired by memories, folklore and a lifetime of reading and imagining, Coelho’s lyrical text draws us in and evokes a personal response. Rhythms and sounds are explored, but it’s the story that drives this book. Take-away messages are clearly stated (which may be reassuring for readers who are less familiar with poetry) but plenty of room is left throughout for curiosity and dreaming.
Johnson’s artwork uses light and shade to create depth and atmosphere, and much is left unshown on every spread. Direction and boundaries are played with to heighten our sense of magical transformation: the book must be turned as the children leave the tree, and vignettes set into disorienting perspectives demand that we look closely and change our viewpoint. ‘I wanted to… create a visual adventure that would complement Joseph’s poem, blending the mundane, the dark and dangerous with the fantastic and celebratory’ explains Johnson, who researched this book extensively: the tower-block spreads, for example, were inspired by the Roehampton estate where Coelho grew up.
‘Richard has done a magnificent job,’ said Coelho, speaking to Arena Illustration. ‘I love the warmth and the magic of his illustrations, I love the details he has included …(and) think the comic book style framing and overlapping works brilliantly. It feels like an advent calendar with gorgeous surprises on every page.’
Celebrating the sense of wonder and possibility that children explore through play, Our Tower urges us to stay in touch with those feelings, and reminds us that nothing is more important than connecting with each other and the natural world.