I will go on record and state, unequivocally, that meerkats are my favourite animal – of the undomesticated variety. I fell in love with these quirky critters in the last century, in a nature documentary, and as if often the case, my esteem for this observant little mongoose now encompasses a small collection of meerkat-related knick-knackery and various forms of printed matter, including the new picture book, I Wish I Were a… by Werner Holzwarth and Stefanie Jeschke.
With their flat foreheads and bulging eyes, meerkats border on the homely, but my admiration stems not from their physical beauty, though they are achingly sweet-faced, but from a cluster of qualities that are equal parts socially ingenious and endearing. It is their personality, in other words, that makes them truly loveable. With all this going for them, who would have thought a meerkat could be insecure?
In the opening pages of I Wish I Were a... a meerkat is seen doing what meerkats do: perched on his hind legs, looking left, straight, right, straight, and so on. He is on the job – ever alert to approaching predators. This meerkat, however, lives in a zoo where threats are few, so it is his fellow zoo mates that he watches. In pondering their various attributes, the meerkat feels inadequate. Why can’t he be strong like the bear, or always goofing off like the chimpanzee?
“I wish I were a lion. Then everyone would be afraid of me!”
A shadow approaches – a hideous creature (with balloons), and the meerkat whistles. Everyone scampers to their burrows. When all is clear, the animals look to the meerkat with gratitude, and not a little envy, wishing they too could be as alert, and quick thinking as their friend. Ah well, the grass is always greener on the other side of the zoo.
The coloured pencil and watercolour illustrations by Stefanie Jeschke are incredibly engaging, capturing the eye-popping, buck-toothed goofiness of the meerkat, as well as his vulnerability and quiet heroism. Random collages of graph paper and bits of typography not only add texture and interest to the background, they also cleverly suggest the bars of a cage, framing the animals, but in no way restricting their expressiveness. Jeschke throws all of the humour and frenetic mark-making into the faces of these creatures, accentuated by cropped visuals, and extreme close-ups. I Wish I Were a…is a book that elicits easy smiles, but for every laugh, there is a thoughtful pause. Self-acceptance is never easy, but in Holzwarth and Jeschke’s hands, it has never been so beautiful, or fun. Of course, you can never go wrong with a meerkat
I Wish I Were a...came into my hands in the original German edition, Ich wär so gern…dachte das Erdmännchen thanks to my then-traveling niece, who, like the meerkat, is ever alert, especially to her auntie’s obsessions. Interestingly, the translated title is not quite the same as the German edition. Ich wär so gern..dachte das Erdmännchen translates as I Would So Much Like…thought the Meerkat, or alternatively, I Would Be So Happy. Other than a slight variation of the title and the addition of a slip cover, the English edition mirrors the original in every glorious, be-whiskered detail. Werner Holzwarth’s words tell a minimalist, but universal story of longing – about wishing to slip into the skin of another, of envying a talent or quality we do not possess, and learning to appreciate the things that make us unique.
Werner Holzwarth is a professor of visual communications at the Bauhaus University in Weimar and works part-time as an author. In 1989, his children’s book The Story of The Little Mole Who Went in Search of Whodunit became a worldwide success. Although he has published many other children’s books, few have been translated into English.
Stefanie Jeschke studied visual communications at the Bauhaus University in Weimar, Germany, and has been illustrating since 2009. Ms Jeschke lives and works in a 100 year old house, in the small historic town of Treuenbrietzen in northeast Germany, where she also exhibits her original book illustrations.
I Wish I Were a… by Werner Holzwarth, illustrations by Stefanie Jeschke. Published by Sky Pony Press, 2013.
Many thanks to Lisa Abid for helping me with the translation.
For more meerkat musings, check out Meerkat Mail by the fabulous Emily Gravett (Macmillan, 2006)