Miss Whimper, Miss Grouch and Miss Stern are desperate to discover why Miss Jolly is so happy. The answer comes in the shape of a giant green flying fruit.
I first found out about this book in a great list of books in translation compiled by Marcia Lynx Qualey although, as I discovered, it’s not strictly a translation. Happiness is a Watermelon on Your Head was written and illustrated by Bulgarian-born Stella Dreis (who now lives in Germany) and first published in Brazil. Daniel Hahn translated the Portuguese version into English, but admits that the end result is more faithful to Dreis’ wonderfully fun illustrations than to her original text.*
The English version of the picture book is brilliantly bonkers from start to finish in both illustrations and words. Zoom in for a closer look at that book cover! The title is bound to bring a smile to your face – and who are those crazy figures in impossible poses with long beak-like noses? And why are those chunks of watermelon flying around? You’ll want to know more . . . and the inside does not disappoint.
The story starts with happy Miss Jolly, who lives with Melvin her pet boar, and enjoys sitting in a tree playing the cello. Her neighbours, the aptly named Miss Whimper, Miss Grouch and Miss Stern are miserable and desperate to find out Miss Jolly’s secret. But they cannot work out what that secret might be. Could it be the edible hat she wears, or her cello playing perhaps, or her pet? They try everything out for themselves – and their endeavours are hilarious – but nothing works. I particularly enjoyed their fashion parade through town, all three ladies adorned with crazy headgear, their long noses pointing haughtily skywards. Fortunately, the answer comes hurtling through the air towards them in the shape of a giant green fruit that covers everyone in a pink, sticky mess.
Stella Dreis’ artwork is full of vibrancy, humour and fun. Her characterisation of the three awfully miserable ladies in particular is superb. I adore their pointy noses, extreme antics and shift from excitement and pride (when they think they’ve cracked Miss Jolly’s secret) to the depths of despair (after their repeated failures). You can’t help but feel sorry for them; the double spread that shows the trio in almost-complete darkness gazing mournfully at the ground is one of my favourites in the book for both illustration and text. Just two words, of two letters each, accompany the artwork. It’s inspired. As is Daniel Hahn’s choice to rewrite the book in rhyming verse as opposed to the original prose – it really adds to the flow and fun of the story. I deliberately pause at the end of certain stanzas so Miss 4 and Miss 7 can shout out the missing words! I also like the use of larger font and spacing on the page to draw attention to specific words & breaks in the metre.
I am sure that this picture book can give rise to all sorts of discussions about the nature of happiness and what we are prepared to do to achieve it. But for me, the joy of this book is in its zany (and utterly wonderful) illustrations and deliciously fun text. Now where’s that watermelon I bought earlier?!
*Find out more about the creative process behind the English text in Daniel Hahn’s interview with translator Rachel Ward.
Happiness is a Watermelon on Your Head by Stella Dreis, with text by Daniel Hahn (Phoenix Yard Books, 2013)
Stella Dreis is an author, illustrator and painter with a background in fashion design. Originally from Bulgaria, she now lives and works in Heidelberg, Germany.
Daniel Hahn is a writer, editor, translator and advocate for children’s literature. He has translated numerous books from Spanish, Portuguese and French, for both adults and children. He has also published various reading guides, including a revised and updated version of The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature (2015).