About the book
Ruben's dreams were of places that made no sense to him. Places that didn't exist. At least not anymore. Ruben lives in a safe place in a city that takes everything and gives nothing back. He begins to feel that he is in danger and ventures to Block City where he meets Koji. She too has been hiding from the dangers of the industrial city and its excesses. Ruben and Koji realise that if they combine their knowledge of how the city works they can find a way to escape. Ruben is a triumph of Whatley's imaginative and technical skills.
About the author
Bruce Whatley has produced some of the most popular and awarded books in Australia, including The Ugliest Dog in the World and Diary of a Wombat, his best-selling collaboration with Jackie French. He has illustrated more than 40 books, including several co-written with Rosie Smith.
Ruben is an extended picture book for a sophisticated readership. It is an extraordinary work of complexity and vulnerability. Diagonal lines denote turmoil and unease from our first meeting with young Ruben who lives alone in his safe place surrounded by things he has collected. 'Broken things. Forgotten things. Things he needed to survive'. Outside is a devastated, decaying, futuristic dystopian setting, perhaps redolent of the 1927 science-fiction film, Metropolis, illustrated in monochromatic graphite and composed of framed and unframed spreads, panel strips and vignettes. Ruben scavenges for forgotten relics in Block City, an industrial maze of machines, cogs and conveyor belts depicted with precise technical detail. Viaducts carry giant trains with endless supplies and fuel for the faceless few in the city's upper levels. The shadows offer safety but also conceal scurrying things. Chiaroscuro rendering of shadows and the light of fireflies evoke contrasting moods but the traditional use of light to represent goodness and hope is subverted when the Controllers, robotic human figures who make senseless decisions, follow glowing globes. Their light is a threat.
Tension increases as Ruben risks injury and life climbing the train tracks. Guards with listening devices, Monoliths who feed cargo to the furnaces, Bowler Men, Sweepers and the Unknowns are a constant peril. Ruben first sees a small running figure as a dark silhouette. It is a girl, Koji, who he entices with a talismanic toy boat before they share their maps made of paper and mechanised disc. Ruben's body language and facial expressions metamorphose from sorrow and defeat to uncertain elation and protectiveness in his encounter with another human child.
Sirens screech in a scene intimating Nazi book burning when Ruben snatches a book dropped by a Monolith. The children escape by climbing the cogs to Koji's secret safe place, together becoming part of 'the space between things'. Once there Koji distances herself, shown by her turned back and retreat into the spaces in between, so Ruben returns to his own, now unsafe, place. Like Ruben and Koji, homeless, displaced children need a symbolic or other key to safety and protection. This multifaceted, allusive work suggests that books and their power to elicit imagination and knowledge may offer solace and strength and even signify a way forward. An open-ended epilogue maintains the sense of disquiet but implies that a hopeful, fairy tale resolution may be possible for some lost children. This is a masterful work.