Allison's Book Bag

The Stamp Collector by Jennifer Lanthier

Posted on: April 16, 2014

Do not be fooled. The Stamp Collector by Jennifer Lanthier is not a light-hearted romp through the glorious world of collecting stamps. Instead it is a disturbing albeit hopeful story inspired by two real-life writers who were imprisoned for what they wrote. The Stamp Collector tells of a boy from the city who collects stamps and grows up to become a guard and a boy from the country who loves words and is sent to prison as an adult for a story he wrote. The postmarks, Chinese characters, and backgrounds in the richly-textured illustrations depict China.

If you think the subject-matter makes for overly dark content in a picture book, you would not be wrong. Indeed, Lanthier shares in her interview with me that she was horrified after writing The Stamp Collector. “I knew it was almost unpublishable.” Lanthier’s sentiment reminds me of an article I read recently about another author who had written about the equally mature topic of fertility. It also reinforces a question which I have often wondered about, which is when and how to discuss adult issues in a children’s book. Many children’s authors seem to turn to writing biographies, which often have an uneven appeal for me depending on how heavy-handed the message is. In the case of the author who wanted to share his family’s fertility struggles, he decided to tell a story instead of two elephants that struggled to have their own baby. In other words, he disguised a serious topic in a cute framework. Lanthier took the opposite approach. While there is a sense of wonder to her story, because of its emphasis on the power of stamps and of words, The Stamp Collector is also a heart-wrenching story about what can happen to a writer in a society that does not value freedom of expression.

What approach then should one take towards The Stamp Collector? In her interview with me, Lanthier says that she tries not to read The Stamp Collector to very young children. Yet isn’t that the typical audience for picture books? Yes and no. Lanthier points out that, “for ages eight through 80 or older, it seems to work”. Due to the intensity of the subject matter, I would agree with restricting The Stamp Collector to slightly older readers and even add that it would benefit from the loving guidance of an adult.

However, Lanthier is right to believe that her book may be of interest to older kids. The Stamp Collector could be used to encourage letter-writing and social action. Kids of most any age can sign petitions. Even better, imagine being part of a collective effort to reassure writers in prison that they are not forgotten by writing postcards and letters to them. And if one remains dissatisfied with the book’s unhappy ending? Lanthier tells of one Toronto class who adapted The Stamp Collector into a play where “the villagers rose up and demanded freedom of expression and the release of the writer”.

The Stamp Collector isn’t an easy book to digest. One review even called it, “a suffocating experience”. Yet it’s also about such a unique topic, and told in such a poignant way, I consider it full of potential. Many awards have been bestowed upon The Stamp Collector. Countless readers have written Lanthier to tell her how much it made them cry but how they also loved it. You might just decide it’s worth being part of your reading experience too.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

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