Kept Under His Hat

The first children's book written by illustrator Naama Benziman uses a rich visual language to follow the path trod by parents as their child's self-perception takes shape.

On the inside of the cover of "Hakova Hagavoa shel Albert" ("The Tall Hat"), written and illustrated by Naama Benziman (Am Oved), even before the story begins an urban landscape stretches over two adjacent pages. The familiar shape of the Shalom Tower immediately helps to identify the setting as Tel Aviv. Here and there other familiar buildings peep out, but in the gray-brown urban tangle a strange and different building catches the eye. The outlines of this tall building - into which Albert, the protagonist of this story, and his mother will move - are taken from the belfry of the Russian Orthodox St. Peter's Church in Abu Kabir, on the border between Tel Aviv and Jaffa. Benziman plants this Christian tower in the heart of the Hebrew city, and there its difference is obvious.

The boy Albert is also different, or more precisely special, as we realize right on the first page, on which two short and decisive sentences appear: "The tall hat was Albert's. Mother said: 'Albert is something special.'" With this unusual opening, Benziman baits the reader. Anyone who supposes there is a causal connection between the two sentences can dive right into the world of childhood, which Albert represents. Indeed, through no fault of his own, Albert believes the hat on his head is the source of his unique qualities.

It quickly becomes clear that this wonderful hat - a gilded cone only rarely seen in the book in its entirety, because of its size - is a burden that makes it difficult for the child to integrate into the society around him. As the story unfolds we also realize that Albert's uniqueness (unlike the clear architectural oddity of the bell tower in the middle of Tel Aviv) is subjective. In his mother's eyes, Albert is special, just as every child is special in the eyes of those who love him.

This is the first children's book written by Naama Benziman, who in recent years has illustrated various children's books including some by her mother, Hagit Benziman. At a conference on deciphering a culture's visual codes, held a few weeks ago at Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College in Tel Aviv, Naama Benziman described working with the text and illustrations in parallel as a fluid process that resembles solving an equation made up entirely of unknowns.

Nuances in the images

On the right-hand side of the book's first double spread three children are seen playing in a yard. Albert stands facing them in the far corner of the left-hand page, his hat several times larger than his body. In one hand he is holding a toy puppy, while his other hand holds the hand of a figure outside the picture. This is (presumably) Albert's loving and dominant mother; however, it can also be interpreted as Benziman the author, who holds onto her readers and with a skilled hand draws the story for them in words, and especially in pictures.

The text of the book is printed in a font that resembles handwriting and there is something manipulative about this. Benziman stresses certain words and makes others smaller, spinning visual intuition that accompanies the story from beginning to end. It appears this device expresses, among other things, her lesser belief in the written word as compared to illustrations.

Indeed the visual language in the book is especially varied and rich. The pages are populated by numerous images such as a preening peacock (a symbol of narcissism), small songbirds, stars and a spiral shape. Some of them appear again and again throughout the book - for example the small boy often on the sidelines of key scenes, wanting to make friends with Albert.

In her work Benziman has integrated drawings, paintings, three-dimensional illusions and depictions from various perspectives; she does a fine job of transmitting a wide range of sensations and emotions. The words follow a narrative line, but the nuances are revealed mainly in the images.

Albert's mother expects him to take good care of the hat so that it does not get dirty, wrinkled or wet. Albert indeed does not go wild, he doesn't play and he, in the narrator's words, "regretted this a bit." It sometimes seems, by implication at least, that the mother is blamed for Albert's distance from other children. However, this is not the focus of the story. Albert's mother makes considerable efforts to help her son take care of the hat, in which he himself sees such great uniqueness, even when this causes difficulties in both their lives.

At the beginning of the story, Albert's mother is depicted as an omnipotent, concerned and beneficent mother. The plot seems to be built around what she says (only after the mother's opinion is presented does it turn out that society too considers Albert "a gifted child"). She builds a special bed for him, long enough to accommodate his hat; she buys a long car for the same reason and even moves into a new home with a very high ceiling, all for the sake of Albert's hat.

A farewell embrace

It is not by chance that a crisis arises, followed by salvation, when Albert leaves the house to play by himself in the yard. The white and orderly pages are replaced by two double spreads with a greenish background, which mark the heart of the narrative drama. A strong wind blows Albert's hat away and he does not manage to catch it. Albert is alarmed. He fears his mother's reaction and is also afraid that he has lost his uniqueness in society's eyes. For the first time we see his curly red hair, which until now had been concealed by the hat.

On the pages that follow, Albert and his mother are seen locked in a strong embrace, their eyes shut. The storm has indeed died down, the background of the picture is white and pristine once again, and even the text implies a certain release of tension. Nevertheless, some drama is depicted here as well. The puppy that Albert holds, a classic transitional object, nearly falls from his hand and it is hinted that this is a farewell embrace.

Benziman transfers the processes Albert experiences onto the readers as well. Just as Albert comes to understand how secondary the hat's role in his life is, it becomes clear to the readers that behind the frame story about Albert the boy hides the real event in the book. This event, which can be seen as both sad and a cause for happiness, touches upon the path trod by every parent and child on the way to constructing the child's independent perception of the self. In a succinct and precise text, Benziman leads Albert and his mother along this path - which crosses a twilight zone where the protective parental instinct is liable to degenerate into over-protectiveness.

The issue of the hat that so occupies Albert is finally resolved: "The hat hid your hair," says the mother to her son. "We'll manage without it. At long last it's possible to see what nice curls you have."

On the final double spread Albert is seen with other children of his age. His clothes are a bit muddy (the language of the picture follows the narrative with intentionally blotchy painting) and he is delightedly getting ready to kick a ball. Though the mother is absent from the picture, it is worth paying attention to two other small figures, of a father and his son, who appear in the far corner. The boy, who resembles Albert, is sitting on his father's shoulders in a scene that provides some consolation to parents and a hope that their child's journey to maturation and independence does not have to mean being fully cut off from them.