Let me start by saying that, taken as its own animal, without any consideration to what has come before or what else might exist in the world, Joseph Kuefler’s debut picturebook, Beyond the Pond, is exceptional.
It features a great central character in Ernest D., as well as an adorable and loyal puppy sidekick. The text is crisp and challenging, the way it should be, and the illustrations are wonderful and quirky. The narrative, about a young boy who decides one day to explore the pond behind his house by diving in and swimming as deep as deep can be only to discover a whole other world, is great, and a fantastic championing of the powers of imagination and the importance of adventure.
Kuefler does absolutely everything right.
The sole knock against Beyond the Pond is that it bears some striking resemblances to two recent works, Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s Caldecott honoree, Sam and Dave Dig A Hole, and Pool, by JiHyeon Lee, one of our favourite books of the year.
Pool is a wordless book about a young boy who goes to his overcrowded local public swimming pool and dives down beneath the other swimmers and then deeper and deeper still, where he discovers another world populated by fantastic creatures.
Sam and Dave Dig A Hole is about two friends (and their adorable and loyal sidekick puppy) who, well, dig a hole in a bid to discover something “spectacular.” Sam and Dave is incredibly popular and award-winning, and there are major thematic similarities between the two. It’s also difficult to ignore the additional likenesses between Kuefler’s artwork and Klassen’s, though, ironically, Kuefler’s work in Beyond the Pond bears stronger resemblance to Klassen books other than Sam and Dave Dig A Hole.
Throw in a number of obvious nods to the work of film-maker Wes Anderson (Ernest D.’s red beanie is straight out of The Life Aquatic, and the image of Ernest D.’s accoutrements laid out (right) could be from any number of Anderson films) and, for this reviewer at least, it threatens to become a bit distracting. (I didn’t catch it on my initial reading, but speaking with a friend about the book, it was brought up that her first reaction upon reading Beyond the Pond was that it was very much lie Maurice Sendak’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are… Just to pile on. And I can’t really argue with her.)
Now, despite all of those thoughts and similarities, I say again: Kuefler has done everything right. And I don’t in any way mean to suggest that, save for the Wes Anderson references (which I’m convinced are intentional), any of these similarities to other works are nefarious or even purposeful. I believe they are entirely coincidental on his part. But they’re there.
So it’s perhaps a testament to his abilities that I don’t really care that much. If the work weren’t of such a high quality I would write off Beyond the Pond, but I haven’t and cannot. It has jumped into the regular rotation of bedtime books in our house, and I expect it shall remain there for some time. (Truth be told, despite the awards, I think Beyond the Pond is a much stronger work than Sam and Dave Dig A Hole, which is a bit of a minor work for both its author and illustrator.)
I eagerly anticipate what comes next from this talented writer and illustrator.
Kinderlit requested and received a copy of Beyond the Pond in exchange for an honest review. Read about our review policy HERE.