Dylan’s Birthday Present is a children’s book like no other, recounting the adventures of Dylan and his best friend Emma through a colourful world that metamorphoses into a meeting point where different languages and cultures intersect, realizing, eventually, that they are not so different after all.
The best thing about this narrative is that it conveys a powerful message of solidarity and inclusion at a time when the world seems to be marked by a rising indifference and fear towards anything or anyone that may be different, and thus stigmatized as a threat. Dylan is the son of immigrant parents and brought up in a multicultural environment, however this is not considered to be a deficiency, something that makes Dylan an outcast or segregated. On the contrary, being a polyglot is regarded as a superpower, something that, at the end of the story, proves to be the keystone that resolves the entire sequence of the events. One quickly learns that the true supernatural aspect of the power of speaking many languages dwells in the very fact that it enables to speak to many people, to widen one’s perspective, to perceive one’s self not as a single atom but as a small part of a wider community, and to relate with such and see one’s self reflected in it despite the points of divergence.
This is allegorically represented by the encounter with the Portuguese man, and his advice to take care of friends because they are worth more than gold. The association of friends with gold, spoken in Portuguese, blends the three semantic fields pointing to the hidden message that speaking multiple languages is the ultimate richness because being able to communicate in various languages can connect even the people from the most remote parts of the world, taking as a starting point the multicultural microcosm of Dylan's and Emma's homes. With a strong, fearlessly resilient centripetal drive, this book wants to explain that, no matter how far from one another some cultures seem to be on the surface of this apparently big, but little, world, there is always a way to bridge the distance. Instead of trying to break bonds, to separate, the narration wants to tie together, to make the child reader realize that there are many realities and many cultures they can still discover growing up and that they are not limited their own single reality, one language, one culture. It gives a message of hope for the future generations to get educated and go out to discover that being different or, in this sense, part of another culture, is something that one should be proud of, like a superpower that can create a meaningful whole.
All of this is expressed through the most gorgeous illustrations, which enlarge and enhance the reading experience, accompanying with their brightness a language that is just as luminous. The beauty of it lays in the fact that it incorporates words from the languages mentioned, other than English, making the story more convincing and effective. However, the use of footnotes to explain the foreign terms and their translation appears to be rather superfluous and struck me as quite odd, given that there is already a disclaimer at the beginning of the book about them, and even a code to scan. In addition, footnotes transgress the stylistic conventions of children’s books, which are strictly non-academic and therefore do not require footnotes and such formalities. Another thing that could have been improved indeed is the font of the text, black and bold and rather serious which is very out of tune with the playful character of the drawings, creating a discordance between the aesthetic of the illustration and that of the text. The same thing applies to the page numbers, just above the text, overall giving a quite awkward impression of the layout and, again, not homogeneous with the rest.
Nevertheless, this book is a must-read for children (and even adults!) of every age, since it aims at conveying a powerful message of love and against intolerance and racial prejudice which resonates in light of current events.
I am in the senior sophister year of my BA in English Literature and Classics, writing a thesis on John Keats’ poetry and 19th-century Victorian literature. I majored in English and I am specialized in reviewing children's books and classics. Tips for my work are greatly appreciated!