Cast Away on the Letter A

lettera

  • Cast Away on the Letter A (A Philémon Adventure)
  • written/illustrated by Fred
  • published by Toon Books (Candlewick Press) (2014)
  • Roar Score: 5/5

There’s something about a book that begins with a map. Maybe it appeals to my inner explorer. Maybe it appeal to the inner 9-year-old who pored over world maps, lost in the wonder of what those little dots and intersecting lines represented.

Whatever it is, when I open a book and am immediately confronted with a mid-century National Geographic world map…I’m in.

I have to admit that before cracking open this beautiful little book, I was wholly unfamiliar with the character of Philémon. I’d hazard a guess that most Americans are. The character began in the French magazine Pilote in 1965 and was eventually successful enough to merit its own series of books.

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Between 1972 and 1987, 15 books chronicling Philémon’s adventures were published. Like Tintin and Asterix, it was a mainstay of French cartooning. But for some reason it never made the jump over to the New World….until now.

Toon Books recently put out the very first Philémon adventure in its very first English-language translation. (Philémon was a staple of publisher Francoise Mouly’s youth, so this is very much a labor of love.) It is, quite obviously, a perfect place to begin.

Our main characters are Philémon, an imaginative teenager (who has a knack for getting into trouble), and Anatole, a talking donkey. Expect more humor and fantasy than realism here, and you won’t be disappointed.

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This story follows Philémon as he descends into a well after discovering a message in a bottle. He slips, falls, finds himself underwater, and is soon washed up on a beach. Turns out the well is Philémon’s own door to Narnia / looking glass to Wonderland / Oceanic Flight 815.

Fans of Dr. Seuss will feel right at home here. Philémon soon meets Bartholomew, who’s been digging a well for 40 years, his centaur butler, a bottle tree, a castle that grows by itself, and a unicorn soothsayer…among many other delights that are better off seen.

So, what’s up with the title? Well, as it happens, this weird island is actually the capital letter A in the words Atlantic Ocean. You know the ones. They’re on every map. Apparently, the letters form a whole chain of islands stretching from the Caribbean to Africa.

This tale was, I’m sure, a highlight of absurdist comedy in 1965. But, wonderfully, it still holds up today—amazingly well. It doesn’t feel dated or “foreign.” The gags still work, and the art is still fantastic.

It holds up equally well as both a piece of cartooning history and a modern fantasy for all ages. Philémon’s adventure is remarkably timeless, and children will laugh along as he stumbles from the Shipwreck Lights up through the liquid ceiling of a Labyrinth.

And like all great stories, this one has a happy ending. Cast Away on the Letter A has done so well that Toon Books is accelerating the release of the second book in the series: The Wild Piano.

May fortune smile on Philémon so we may enjoy this series through to the end.

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(Many thanks to Candlewick Press, who provided The Roarbots with a review copy of this book.)

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