The assertive tone of the title ‘I Am Thomas’ suggests a narrator who has struggled to achieve subjectivity - or even to have his voice heard - and would make an interesting comparison with such narratives as 'Billy Elliot'. The words of the title may be simple, but the brevity calls to mind damaged figures from fiction, such as Marina in John Marsden’s ‘So Much to Tell You’ or from popular culture who have lived with a speech disability, such as George VI in 'The King's Speech'. These simple words have been hard-won.
The front cover features a solitary angry-looking, possibly teenage, boy. His red hair plays into a stereotype of volatility, his hands are plunged protectively, ungenerously, into his pockets, and the loose texture of his jumper suggests both high-strung vibrations and a knit that is on the point of unravelling. If this appears to be too literal a reading of the image, the spareness of the composition invites and even demands it. There is just a boy against a white background, with the unadorned lettering of the title and the names of the author and illustrator, suspended above him like a thought-balloon or a cloud; there's nothing else to go on.
The half-title page introduces a few soft pencilled images from a bygone era of travel: a pocket atlas or guidebook, open on Africa and what appears to be Madagascar, a torch - or is it a spyglass? - and a familiar example of trench art, a twin-prop plane on a stand, fashioned by some unknown soldier from the waste metal remnants of war. The title 'I Am Thomas' is now pushed so far up the page that it may be about to float off and disappear. The historic references evoke nostalgia, for the possibility of individual agency lost.
Armin Greder's dedication is addressed to the author: 'To Libby, who writes very illustratable stories.' He and Libby Gleeson have formed a long-standing and award-winning partnership as picture book collaborators, with his increasingly bleak vision and dark palette acting as a counterpoint to her energetic and often playful word texts. Here, however, Gleeson's narrative is perhaps the grimmest of all her picture books and invites comparisons not with Gleeson's picture books, but with Greder's solo narratives, such as ‘The Island’. Gleeson's text consists mainly of scraps of advice or instruction that have been shouted at Thomas for most of his life. They are not attributed, but they are all clearly from adults or institutions represented by adults. As they accumulate, the point size of the type increases dramatically and becomes bolder.
Here's the challenge that Greder implies he accepted eagerly: the narrator does little more than mooch through the book, attempting to assert his identity but being shouted down by a crowd of aggressive anonymous adults - who also do very little in the way of plot. So Greder's challenge is to create a visual narrative in the spaces between the words. He does this in two ways: he illustrates in colour the objects of the world that Thomas chooses for himself. It is a simple, childlike world of toys and souvenirs. A globe, an ocean liner, a mask and snorkel, a skateboard, an iPod and earphones for music, a prism, a mask, a compass and so on. They cluster around several themes. First, there is exploration or travel. Second, there is knowledge or science, which is linked to historical stories of travel. Third, there is imagination and this overlaps with game-playing. Through the convergence of these themes, many of the images tell a story of the desire to escape or at least to create a world that is protected from the raucous demands of adults.
It is interesting that the book ends with an image that features in several earlier compositions: the toy bus. It is specifically a yellow school bus, only familiar to Australian readers from literature, film and television, but to readers in the United States an iconic part of everyday life. The parallel monochromatic visual narrative of shouted instructions begins on pages 6-7 with the alarm clock, the school shoes, polish and brush, and the graph paper and pencil, but really begins to take off on pages 8-9, which are set in a school. There are ugly adult mouths, a bullying teacher at a blackboard, mouths full of teeth and a snarling dog, and whispering, smirking children, all staring out at the reader, who is being positioned as Other. The clear implication is that the ostracism of a child like Thomas begins at school.
On pages 12-13, four individual adults confront the reader: a parent, a counsellor, a religious figure and a weeping woman, who may be a parent or teacher. While the father in the first frame is yelling at Thomas/ the reader, the counsellor leans forward with earnest interest and a notebook and pen; the smirking cleric pats the vacant bench next to him in a sinister reference to grooming and sexual abuse; and the woman blots out her vision with another tissue from the box she is cradling to deal with what we may infer are crocodile tears. Apart from the shouting father, these adults project a carefully constructed attitude of compassion.
In each of the spreads that follow, Greder focuses on one field of corporate power that oppresses the individual: now the focus changes to crowds and the use of charcoal for the loose monochromatic illustrations suggests the grubbiness of collective action. Business, military service, politics, religion. The bullying teacher morphs into the boss, the counsellor, the priest, the parent, the politician, the armed officer, the religious bigot, all yelling 'You are heading for failure', 'You will amount to nothing', 'do as you are told,' 'think like us, be like us,' 'Let the army make you a man,' 'Come to the Lord' and so many other instructions that they soon overlap, invade and begin to dominate the composition. Then finally back to the classroom. Notice the pointing fingers, accusing the reader, who is positioned like Thomas, as the object of their bullying, and compare it with the famous World War 1 poster with Lord Kitchener's message 'Your Country Needs You'.
Thomas starts out by telling us that he is not the child he once was, and yet as he emerges from all the shouting bigger on the page, surrounded by silent white space, full coloured like his toys and finally appearing less angry, he is more clearly than ever a child. The final full colour spread has him with a backpack, joining other full colour adults who are waiting to board a bus. It is not a school bus; perhaps it is a bus for travellers or tourists - although in the context of other picture books by Armin Greder, it is tempting to wonder whether they are refugees. Those in the foreground are shadowy and may not be travelling solely for pleasure. Then, as mentioned above, the narrative comes full circle on page 32 with the wordless image of the toy school bus: a fascinating coda that ironically proposes school as a refuge from, rather than the instigator of, Thomas's suffering.
The overall construction of adolescence as a battle between child and adult at first aligns I Am Thomas with the reductive polemic of John Marsden's ‘Secret Men's Business’ and his Tomorrow series, but its resistance to any simple reading of childhood and the school as fields of play dramatises very powerfully Thomas's refusal to conform as a deferral, rather than a resolution, of meaning.