Quill and Quire

Canada's magazine of book news and reviews

The Stamp Collector

by Jennifer Lanthier; François Thisdale, illus.

Jennifer Lanthier faced formidable challenges in crafting her first picture book. The journalist and author had to figure out how to tell a story about freedom of expression to a young audience; how to ensure the book remained meaningful without becoming too dark; and how to give the story power beyond its political message. With The Stamp Collector, illustrated by François Thisdale, Lanthier has succeeded in overcoming these challenges.

In measured, precise prose, Lanthier tells the story of a Chinese boy who discovers a discarded postage stamp and realizes he is connected to a wider world. As stamp collecting becomes his passion, another boy in the countryside develops his own passion for telling stories. Their lives intersect years later, when the first boy becomes a guard at the prison where the second has been locked up for his political writings.

The writer is sent letters from readers around the world, though he’s not permitted to receive any of them. With his interest in stamps, the prison guard takes note of the mail and eventually feels compelled to deliver the letters to the writer as evidence the world has not forgotten him. Weakened by his years in prison and near death, the writer tells his stories to the guard, who promises to share them. He does so by writing a book that begins as The Stamp Collector does: “This is the story of not long ago and not far away …”

Thisdale’s dreamlike illustrations feature textured backgrounds with collages of postmarks and Chinese characters. Darkness is illuminated by moments of whimsy (a postage stamp imagined as a kite) and the exquisite detail of the colourful stamps.

Lanthier volunteers for PEN Canada, and a portion of the book’s proceeds will be donated to the charity, which helps support the Writers in Prison letter-writing campaign. Both in theory and practice, this book is a testament to the power of story. ­