Brain Pickings

Herman and Rosie: An Illustrated Ode to Finding a Sense of Purpose and Belonging in the Big City

by

Why life is like jazz on a New York City rooftop.

“Most people do not grow up … our real selves, the children inside, are still innocent and shy as magnolias,” Maya Angelou wrote in her beautiful meditation on home and belonging. So how do those shy magnolias find a sense of purpose in a world of billions and amidst the hustle and bustle of a crowded city? That’s precisely what Australian author and illustator Gus Gordon explores with infinite gentleness, simple words and gorgeous pictures in Herman and Rosie (public library) — the story of a crocodile and a deer who live as neighboring strangers, like most New Yorkers do, until they discover that they have two profound things in common: an enormous love of music and a deep-seated lonesomeness in this big city they call home but never quite feel embraced by.

Herman Schubert lives on the seventh floor of a typical New York City apartment building, and Rosie Bloom two floors below. Herman has a soft spot for “potted plants, playing the oboe, wild boysenberry yogurt, the smell of hot dogs in the winter, and watching films about the ocean,” and Rosie loves “pancakes, listening to old jazz records, the summertime subway breeze, toffees that stuck to her teeth, singing on the fire escape, and watching films about the ocean.” They both enjoy the city but…

After a long day of phone sales in his cubicle office, Herman plays the oboe at night on the rooftop. Rosie, who works in the kitchen of an upscale restaurant, rides her bike to a singing lesson every afternoon and performs every Thursday night in a small jazz club.

One day, Herman overhears Rosie singing and finds himself inspired to improvise “a groovy little jazz number” during his rooftop oboe session that night. Rosie, taking a bath, overhears Herman’s music.

For days, each of them has the other’s tune on mental repeat like a delightful invisible companion everywhere they go.

And then, disaster strikes: Herman is fired because he can’t sell enough useless things to people, and Rosie finds out her beloved jazz club is shutting down.

Herman Schubert sat in his small apartment eating pretzels. To cheer himself up he decided to watch his entire Jacques Cousteau underwater film collection.

Packed away neatly under the bed sat Herman’s oboe.

Rosie Bloom stood in the kitchen of her small apartment making pancakes. Lots of pancakes. Way more than she could ever possibly eat.

This didn’t make her feel any better, so she sat down and watched her entire Jacques Cousteau underwater film collection.

Weeks go by as Herman and Rosie sink into disheartenment. “The city kept on moving, but everything had fallen out of tune,” Gordon tells us with his tender touch and poetic mastery of language. And then, one sunny spring day, Herman and Rosie go walking in the city until a chance encounter brings them together at a Central Park hot dog stand and puts a smile on both souls.

That night, Herman picks up the oboe again. “The city seemed pleased to see him. Even its rattles and honks sounded musical.” Rosie, herself in an unusually joyful mood, overhears the music from her kitchen, leaps out onto the fire escape and up the roof, and discovers her new Central Park Friend, her very own oboist neighbor.

With its impossibly charming illustrations and timeless story of loneliness and belonging in the big city, Herman and Rosie is honey for sight and soul, bound to bring a smile to hearts of all ages, reminding us that in the big city, as in life itself, happiness comes from finding your tribe and savoring that shared sense of purpose.

Complement it with Little Boy Brown, a lovely vintage illustrated take on life in Gotham, arguably the greatest ode to childhood and loneliness of all time.

Images courtesy of Roaring Brook Press

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