The story begins with two friends - a hat maker and his friend, who would sit with the hat maker while he worked. The hat maker's friend would make them the most perfect tea and they would tell stories while the hat maker created. But then the hat maker's friend announces that he is leaving to follow his own dream to become a sea captain. After they say goodbye, the hat maker's quiet life becomes very lonely. Finally he realizes he must find a new friend. He discovers a tree full of birds that look promising, but the birds are too busy shoveling snow out of their nests and keeping their fires lit to engage with the hat maker. Brimsby comes up with a solution that involves his talents, and it ultimately gains him a larger community of friends.
One of the things I find most powerful is the tension between the quiet, simple text and the highly detailed illustrations. For example, there is a brief line of text about the hat maker and his friend. While the hat maker works the text reads "Together they would have the most wonderful conversations." Most of us could imagine the dialogue between friends, what is said and perhaps unsaid. But Prahin shows the hat maker and his badger best friend at the table, talking. Above their heads are multiple balloons, showing the many things they talk about, the things they imagine together. The two friends are royalty, pirates, slay a dragon, defeat a pirate octopus and fly away on a golden bird. Each "story" is no bigger than a quarter, yet it contains an exciting narrative for the two friends. It is interesting because although the pair's described activities are quiet and deliberate (sitting at a table, creating hats and sipping tea), their imagined activities are full of daring and valor. But in both sets of activities, they are a pair. In this book, the text takes a back seat to the vivid illustrations.
It isn't that the text isn't great, it's just that the illustrations give life to the words in this book. When the hat maker sends hats to his customers, the illustrations show the customers trying on the hats he created. My favorite is a buffalo, with his oversized torso tucked into a western-style shirt and perched on the tiniest chair. He is holding up a hand mirror in which it is apparent that he cannot see the new bowler perched on his head. He is trying hard, however, to admire it. It is funny and charming all at once.
Another thing I love about this book is Prahin's choice of colors. In the beginning of the book, there are bright, lively colors splashed on the pages. The hats the hat maker creates are depicted in traditional hat colors - grays, browns and blacks, but with colorful trim. And there is color all over his house and studio. But when his best friend leaves to become a sea captain, things become sadder, lonelier, and more gray. The gray palette continues until the hat maker takes a chance and tries to make friends. The colors then become celebratory and bright again.
I said at the beginning of my blog that I had some things I was wondering about in the text. One of those things is the title. In case you missed it, the title is Brimsby's Hats. But only once in the text is the hat maker referred to as Brimsby. Mostly he is called the hat maker. Only the third sentence of the story includes his name: "Brimsby would make the most wonderful hats and his friend would make the most wonderful tea." I'm not sure why he is primarily described by his occupation, except, of course, it isn't just his occupation. It's a talent and a gift. He uses his gift to help the birds survive the winter snow, and his gift earns him more friends.
One of the other things that struck me about this book was the friendship between the hat maker and his friend (who is also unnamed).Their friendship is a cozy routine of tea and talk. The text tells us that their friendship went on in the same manner "for many years" until the friend tells the hat maker that he is leaving to become a sea captain. I was amazed at how brave this leavetaking was for both of them. They have been bound together as a pair, partners in their adventures day in and day out. Yet it takes bravery for the sea captain to take the risk and try a new adventure. And it also takes bravery for the hat maker to gracefully say goodbye. They are true friends, and their friendship can expand to include others as time goes on. The last sentence is one of perfect completion: "And the large group of friends would drink tea and talk about hats and shovels and ships and how wonderful it was that they had all been lucky enough to meet one another."
Brimsby's Hats. Andrew Prahin. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2014.
borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library