In spite of the title and the giant heart on the cover, Hug Time is not a conventional Valentine’s Day book, unless your object of affection is a blue whale, or a baobab tree. However, considering my other VD recommendations (at the end of this post) involve fruit and frogs, Hug Time is entirely within the scope of the 32 Pages Valentine’s oeuvre.

Hug Time is actually an environmental book, starring Patrick McDonnell’s favourite little environmentalist, animal advocate, and resident tiger lover, Jules, also known as Shtinky Puddin’ in the comic strip Mutts, from which this character originates. Jules decides that our ailing world is in need of hug, and sets out to remedy the situation. I can think of a few more things the world needs (more cowbell, for instance), but a hug is always a good place to start. Ever resourceful, Jules packs only what is necessary for such a journey, his favourite green sweater and a hug to-do list. If only my cat traveled so lightly.

Jules starts local, hugging his best friends Mooch, Noodles and Earl, before branching out to butterflies, squirrels, and all the birds in the park. Next, he lays a big fat squeeze on a blue whale, who rises up to receive his hug from the bow of a ship. Jules ventures into a rainforest and discovers a brand new species of (what looks like) a chameleon. Kneeling down, Jules hugs the colourful fellow and says,

“We welcome you.”

So sweet. After a brief pause to meditate, Jules hugs a tiger, gnu, panda, peacock, a ‘petite pudu’, a wallaby, wombat and a hummuhumu fish, which is “number three hundred and six on his Hug-To-Do list.”

Things get a little bleak north of sixty, where he imagines what it would be like with no one around.

Hug Time polar bear

In a simple painting of a blue sky dotted with snow flakes arching across a white landscape, Jules sits alone, weeping. Suddenly, a white paw reaches out and grabs his tail. A polar bear asks, “Would you like a hug?” The animal so tragically symbolic of the environmental pressures endangering the earth’s inhabitants, and arguably the creature most in need of a ‘hug’ is instead, offering his open arms to Jules. It is a loving, and lovely moment.

Jules sets sail for home. “The world is big…and yet so small. It’s time that we embrace it all.”

As always, Patrick McDonnell watercolour paintings are minimalist masterpieces, evoking the deepest emotions and amusements with just a few strokes of his brush. To say that I am in awe of this man would not be an overstatement. I’m not quite sure how he does what he does. In any other hands, a book about a kitten hugging the world would be cloying, but nothing about the intrinsic kindness of McDonnell’s characters is ever manipulative or cynical. ‘Message’ books can be very tricky, but McDonnell manages to wrap Hug Time’s environmental message in gentle humour and achingly beautiful art. It’s reassuring to know that in a world that celebrates and rewards someone like Michael Vick, there are people like Patrick McDonnell; a man who is truly inspirational, and whose presence on earth makes it worth saving.

I have discussed Mr McDonnell’s background in length and reviewed several of his books in other posts (linked below), so I will now return to the theme of Valentine’s Day and suggest a few books about love, or perhaps more accurately, untraditional love, from deep within the 32 Pages archive:

One of my all time favourite love stories is Peach and Blue by Sarah Kilborne, with illustrations by Steven Johnson and Lou Fancher. It’s a gorgeously illustrated tale of friendship and dare I say it, love, between a blue frog and a ripe peach. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Henry in Love by Peter McCarty. A little more traditional, although it explores the knee-weakening, blue muffin-giving crush aspect of love, rather than the romance of say, amphibian love (see above.)

The Chicken Thief by Beatrice Rodriguez. A decidedly unconventional love story between sworn enemies. I won’t give it away. It’s just too delicious. Finger-lickin’ delicious, in fact.

The Steadfast Tin Soldier by Hans Christian Andersen, illustrations by Fred Marcellino. It doesn’t get any weepier or more bittersweet. Suffice to say, if you’re a paper ballerina (or a tin soldier), stay away from fireplaces.

Little Beauty by Anthony Browne. Pure monkey love.

That’s it. Six tales of love, of a sort. Love is never what you think it is in children’s books, but then again, is it ever anywhere? I only hope that we all (me too please) find our frogs, or our peaches, or even our baobab trees. In the words of Jules, aka, Shtinky Puddin’, it’s time we embrace it all.

Hug Time by Patrick McDonnell, published by Little, Brown and Company, 2007.  For an extra hug, you can listen to Patrick McDonnell reading his book. Dreamy.

South by Patrick McDonnell, published by Little, Brown and Company, 2008  ISBN: 0136005096

Guardians of Being, words by Eckhart Tolle and art by Patrick McDonnell, New World Library 2009  ISBN: 978-1577316718

I would recommend all of Patrick’s Mutts collections, in fact I insist that you buy them, but for at taste of all things McDonnell, I HIGHLY recommend: Mutts: The Comic Art of Patrick McDonnell (Abrams 2003),

Also, check out his Muttsthe place to really get to know Mooch and his pals.