Part of the fun of reading is being surprised, whether by an author you thought you knew or a story whose next step you thought you could predict. I was surprised in both ways when I read The Stamp Collector. Before I ran across this inspired picture book, I had read Jennifer Lanthier’s stylish and action-packed series of young adult mystery novels starring an intrepid 12-year-old named Hazel Frump, which began with The Mystery of the Martello Tower. Except for also being very well written, Lanthier’s new book could not be more different from its predecessors.

“This is the story of not long ago,” Lanthier begins, “and not far away. It is the story of a boy who loves stamps and a boy who loves words.” Fran├žois Thisdale’s delicately colorful paintings match the fable-like simplicity of Lanthier’s prose. If you know a child who wants to write or paint or otherwise find expression in the arts, this book might be just the inspirational nudge you’re looking for. It is very much a story about yearning to communicate.

The Stamp Collector is a thoughtful, lyrical tale about how imagination and empathy take hold in different ways in the mind of a city boy and a country boy—and speak across all barriers. The book’s resonant central image is a stamp on a letter that the poor boy finds on the street. “In his dreams, the stamp is a kite,” writes Lanthier, “a paper jewel from the crown of a wise old king.”

The city boy becomes a prison guard. The country boy becomes a writer whose too-realistic stories draw the ire of the country’s repressive political regime. “Words are dangerous,” snarl the officers who arrest the writer in the night. The two boys, now men, meet across the bars of the prison doors. But they are not allowed to speak.

Then the writer begins to receive letters in response to his book, which is banned in his own country—letters from all over the world, adorned with exotic stamps. The guard can’t pass the letters to the writer, but finally he begins to read them himself. And slowly he begins to pass the stamps to the writer as coded messages of hope.

For this new direction in her writing career, Lanthier was inspired by the story of Chinese writers Nurmuhemmet Yasin and Jiang Weiping, during her work with the international organization PEN (Poets, Editors, Novelists). In many hands this tale would have become a screed about repression or free speech. By concentrating on the basic human need to communicate, and by expressing much of her story through the poignant symbolism of the stamps, Lanthier avoids sermonizing. Together she and Thisdale turn The Stamp Collector into a poignant fable.

Michael Sims’ most recent book is The Story of Charlotte’s Web.

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