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January 9, 2017

Review: I Am Jim Henson

Filed under: Feature,Reviews — Tags: , — Joe Hennes @ 10:32 am

This may be sacrilege, but Brad Meltzer’s new “I Am Jim Henson” book may be the best Jim Henson biography yet.

I know what you’re thinking. Brian Jay Jones’ “Jim Henson: The Biography” is epic. It’s thorough, with tons of juicy details, interviews with everyone from Jim’s life, and generally a deep dive into Jim’s history, career, and legacy. But it’s missing one inescapable thing: accessibility for kids.

Okay, so a giant biography shouldn’t have to appeal to a six-year-old. Especially one that spends time talking about subjects like drugs, infidelity, and death. That’s the sort of book that’s made for people like us, who want to know every detail of his life, and to be reminded of what’s worth repeating over and over again to those who need to be educated. There’s still a need for a book that teaches shorter people about who Jim was, and “I Am Jim Henson” does that marvelously.

It must’ve been an incredibly difficult task to reduce the information from “Jim Henson: The Biography”, which comes out to about 600 pages, into a 40-page picture book. So this is obviously a boiled-down version of Jim’s life, focusing just on what’s most important. And I admit, it takes a bit of thought to realize why Meltzer chose the life events in the book, which I believe are truly inspired.

The first thing you’ll notice is that Jim’s creations don’t actually show up until about a third of the way into the book. Instead, there’s more of a focus on the choices a young Jim made to find his way to success. There’s a lot about his family life, a couple pages about him trying to get a job at a local TV station, and his love of television, film, and radio. Brad Meltzer stays true to his word in creating this series of inspirational children’s books by showing the actual inspiration to his readers. It’d be easy to just paste in a bunch of colorful pictures of Muppets (and really, that’s all he’d need to sell the book), but instead he’s making an attempt to urge youngsters to do what they can now so they can find fulfillment later.

Once we see Jim pass through childhood, we stroll through his years on Sam and Friends, Sesame Street, and The Muppet Show, with a special highlight of the people he worked closely with: Jane Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Juhl, Don Sahlin, and more. We also see tiny caricatured versions of some not-mentioned-by-name puppeteers, so feel free to grab a Sharpie and write names next to the ones you recognize. See, you’re already having fun with this book! It’s interactive!

After The Muppet Show years, there’s a bit of a time jump: Straight to the Jim Henson exhibit at (what I assume is) the Center for Puppetry Arts. For those of us paying attention, that’s skipping from 1981 to 2016. You may recall that a few things happened in those 35 years. I’m a little surprised that there’s no mention of his non-Muppet work (like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth), but I guess something had to be cut, and maybe “I Am David Bowie” is next on Meltzer’s list of books to write. Even more surprising is no mention of Jim’s death. I mean, it’s a pretty important part of his story, isn’t it?

But maybe not, as Jim’s death doesn’t actually have much to do with Brad Meltzer’s thesis of using Jim’s story as an inspirational one for kids. This book is about Jim’s accomplishments and the legacy he left behind. The fact that he passed away earlier and more suddenly than expected doesn’t mar or enhance his creations or the inspiration he can lend to the readers of this book. It’s far more important to get that glimpse of how a kid who loved art and TV could one day be prolific enough to have the stuff he made under glass in a museum.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the other half of the creative team behind “I Am Jim Henson”, artist Christopher Eliopoulos, who has illustrated all of the books in Brad Meltzer’s “People Change the World” series. His style is really interesting, in that the subject (and all the kids) are drawn in this pseudo-chibi style, and that other portions are drawn with an almost photorealistic look. In fact, many of the Muppets in this book seem to be traced from preexisting photos. I’m not sure how I feel about this – on the one hand, this is the best way to properly show what the characters look like, but on the other hand, it lacks the creativity that Eliopoulos might be able to bring to the table. I gotta admit, I’m curious as to what Kermit and the gang would look like in his style.

“I Am Jim Henson” concludes with a few words about hope, art, and how kids can follow in his footsteps. And if that’s not the perfect legacy for Jim to leave behind, I don’t know what is.

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by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com



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