I’m super nervous about this post. Sure, I haven’t been in Canada for two-ish years now (I refuse to look up the exact dates lest I cry) but that doesn’t mean I want my citizenship revoked and to be barred entry for the foreseeable future. And I’m worried that if I write this wrong, I’ll get a letter from Passports Canada politely requesting my passport be returned so they can KEEP ME OUT FOREVER. So, up front: Robert Munsch is a treasure and I love him and I’ve written about my love of him and he is just amazing. But here’s the thing– I think that Mac Barnett and Carson Ellis’s new masterpiece (and there’s no other word for it, it’s a work of art) What Is Love? is like Love You Forever but for everyone not in Canada.
Allow me to explain, please! Don’t take my passport! I ABSOLUTELY want non-Canadians to see the glory that is Canadian literature. I think it doesn’t cross the border nearly enough and that’s one of the reasons I actively try to talk about it here! I talk about amazing Canadian illustrators, I talk about reading about war on Remembrance Day. But I also know that some books require a certain kind of experience, Robert Munsch started with storytelling, and if you’ve never heard him tell you (and it does feel like he’s talking just to you) Love You Forever, you haven’t gotten the full experience. I know Love You Forever is the book by Bob Munsch that really crossed that border to the USA, along with The Paper Bag Princess. But I also know American booksellers who can’t stand it. They think it’s corny and sentimental. They don’t love the art. I say, “Wow, really? Wait– have you heard him read it? Do you know the tune to the song?” No, and they don’t. Whereas I remember being in the car with my parents and my sister, and we put on the radio, and I’m a teenager mind you, and Bob Munsch starts reading Love You Forever, and next thing I know we’re chuckling along, sighing at the key bits, and then we’re all sobbing and my dad’s pulled over to the shoulder of the highway because he’s the kind of responsible driver who knows not to drive while tears are pouring down his face. It’s a story narrated with a chuckle here and a sigh there, a groan here and a lump in your throat there. You can’t get the full effect just by picking it up and reading, not without the voice. Every Canadian child knows the original Hockey Night in Canada theme music– and can sing you the song from Love You Forever. This is simply not the case in Brookline, MA, it’s just not, and that’s why I’m so, so, SO glad that Mac Barnett and Carson Ellis came together to create a book that has the chuckles, the sighs, the occasional groan, but very much the lump in the throat, all in the book itself.
And the thing is? I don’t think Mac Barnett could have achieved this if he were not, also, the consummate storyteller, completely in the same line as Bob Munsch: everyone who’s listened to the sage of Grump Grumpus on his book club knows this. And Carson Ellis is a genius communicator with her art, conveying beauty, feeling, and humour. But: this book was not generated as an oral narrative, and while it’s beautiful to read aloud, it needs to be read with the book, the beautiful, physical, delicious book of gorgeous art. Any reader of any age will hear, see, and absorb this on their level, but the book itself is necessary. Now, I did have the absolute joy of hearing Mac Barnett read it aloud on his Instagram book club and then watching Carson Ellis draw some beautiful art of what love was to the children watching. It was a joyful experience, and I laughed and sighed and got choked up. But you, too, reading this with your kids, grandkids, or friends will have that experience, when you buy it and read it with them. Or to yourself.
(Side note to Passports Canada: I’m not saying that the national experience of being “in” on the true, essential meaning of Love You Forever isn’t special, though, ok? Honestly, I will cry if you take my passport.)
I’m trying to nail what makes this book so palpable an emotional experience, and I don’t think it’s just the skill of the writer and the skill of the artist, though, certainly, those are essential. I have seen plenty of books about love for kids. They can be very nice by skillful authors and illustrators. And they can be corny and sentimental, even when created by skillful authors and illustrators. But this is different, and the answer is in the collaboration.
First, the “I” in the book leaves home at the beginning, with the encouragement of his grandmother. He goes out to find out what love is. She sees him off and he goes. I do not find that an easy, sentimental moment to read. I think, “holy crap, kid on my lap, don’t leave me.” I am not, as a parent, as strong as the grandmother, who says, “If you go out into the world, you might find an answer.” Give me a few years. And a few more years than that, ok? The text leaves it at that– the art shows the grandmother watching, and waving, while the boy doesn’t look back. Oof.
More, the boy encounters a huge range of people (and animals) with a range of experiences of what love is. But as each explanation is offered, the boy knocks it down, and the carpenter, the actor, the poet and more reply, “You do not understand.”
Until the boy goes home. (Shit, I’m about to cry. I’ll leave that bit to you.)
So, yes, maybe that rupture, that pathos from the very first pages when you already feel a wrench– maybe that’s enough? But I think it’s more.
Enter Carson Ellis, enter the collaboration. Carson Ellis– wait, what? I was just about to say she was a Caldecott Award Winner, but apparently she “just” got a Caldecott Honor, which is obviously impressive enough, I never got a Caldecott Honor. But anyway– Carson Ellis, in my heart you’re a winner. Excuse my digression. (Wait, another digression: I need a word with the Caldecott folks, because did you know Barbara McClintock never won the Caldecott, either? CRAZY.) (Now I’m done.)
Look, Mac Barnett has collaborated with a wide range of great artists. Like many, I particularly adore Jon Klassen’s beautiful, funny, deadpan collaborations with Mac Barnett. But this is the first time he’s worked with Carson Ellis, though they’ve been friends for years, and she nailed it. No one else could have done the art for this book. It has the right level of detail, the right level of deliberate vagueness: take a look at the night behind the cat, or the poet’s chair with the the sunset over him. Look at the garden in morning and the garden at night. And yet, there’s a subtle washed feeling, a kind of beautiful nuanced blankness that lets you finish the images in your mind. Such as time period. When does this book take place, and where, for example? The boy’s clothing doesn’t tell you much, and the poet is timeless.
There’s also the question of tone, of atmosphere. The fluidity of Carson’s art doesn’t pin it down, but flows gently, deliberately, warmly, colourfully into every nuance of the tone of the text: the boy leaving feels natural and painful at the same time, the fish is both funny and beautiful, and the poet’s love of language feels exalted while the boy’s desire for a straightforward answer, dammit, is so easy to relate to! This would not be the case without Carson Ellis’s human and humane and beautiful art. (Cough, give the lady a Caldecott for this book, it’s insanely good art right here.)
And that’s the thing. She hears the words, working with a powerful focus on the text. Mac Barnett leaves a lot of room for the art to do more than half the work. That is friendship, collaboration– that is love.
Mac Barnett dedicated this book to his wife, Taylor, and Carson Ellis to her grandmas Helen, Claudia, and Ruth (doubtless thinking of the wonderful grandmother in the book), but I can’t help but feel the book is, in itself, a testimony to the loving collaboration of a perfect picture book team.
What Is Love?
This book. This book is a work of love, and I’ve already choked up more than once, reading it aloud to my kids, whom I love, and thinking about the book as the answer to the question of the book.
(Also: My kids themselves, for me. The Changeling and the Spriggan, looking out the window together as the fresh snow fell, that was love in a nutshell.)
(And, Passports Canada? There’s room in the world for multiple books about love, OK? We’re friends, right?)
Apparently someone, and I name no names only because I’m honestly not sure who to blame for this one, decided Chanukah is beginning the evening of November 28 this year? Not to mention, somehow today is November 26, which I’m relatively sure is either not true or the result of some illegal bending of the space-time continuum. And since concerned mutterings about the “supply chain” is becoming as common as discussions of what constitutes “social distancing” and “remember that toilet paper thing, wasn’t it crazy?” I’m here to help with suggestions for books to buy as gifts because, hey, have you heard to get your books bought early because of those supply chain issues? (I knew I was smart to pre-order eight copies of Comfort Me with Apples!) (And then I went and bought more.) (I just realized I’m running low, though, remind me to ask the Brookline Booksmith to pretty please hold two more copies for me, and the Children’s Book Shop to hold more Kaleidoscope.)
First: a general reminder. You know I’m a fan of indie book shops over here. I always link to mine. We learned this last year, but I’m going to remind you again– DO NOT ASSUME LARGE ONLINE RETAILERS MAGICALLY MAKE BOOKS APPEAR RELIABLY OR EVEN FASTER. They really, really don’t. When the supply chain breaks down, no one will have it, and, in fact, oftentimes your indie will be likelier to have it and if you can’t get there in person, they’ll send it to you media mail (I’m talking to folks in the USA here, elsewhere you may not have media mail but you do have other great postal options). But the best thing about your indie? Well. Did you know that if a book is sold out and the reprints are on a boat and not in any shops– there are other books? Large online retailers have a search bar and you look at it thinking: “uhhh ok but, what do I look for…?” A good bookseller can say, “Such a shame about Naomi Novik’s latest being sold out! Katherine Arden often scratches the same itch for readers, though– do you want to see it?” And then you have another great option for a gift for your friend! (Yeah, that’s a real-life example: I got sold on a Katherine Arden book by three booksellers independently of each other, I think they were colluding with each other, and I’m hoping to read it this winter). Maybe, though, you’re having trouble finding an indie, or want a personal recommendation? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will gladly help! I will give recommendations, always, and I will also direct you to bookshop.org which is a wonderful resource both for finding and supporting indies. It also has fabulous lists.
But maybe you want my advice in your own list, and that’s why you’re here, and you’re getting impatient with my blather. Before I hop in (next paragraph) I want to add that you can assume that if I’ve reviewed it already, it’s a great book (which is why I sneakily linked to two reviews up there already, just to remind you to browse my archives for brilliant books). You should definitely consider those archives, honestly, there are really fabulous books in there. This year, I only have a few books which are specifically related to the holidays to add because Candlewick sent them to me and I really did love them. I’m also mentioning a few books that feel like great books to read on a vacation, or which are simply exceptional and you should get them.
Matt Tavares’s Dasher was the book I jumped at when offered to me, because I do love his art! It was as visually appealing as I’d expected, coming from him. What struck me with a little surprise was the gentle blend of bite, not meanness or cruelty, but the reality of real-world difficulties, into a sweet Christmas book. Of course, social commentary and more than a bit of pathos is not uncommon in Christmas literature, predating Dickens. (Delete, delete, delete. Sorry, got carried away with my historical commentary, you can email me if you want the whole narrative, as well as my critique of The Little Match Girl.) Tavares, though, turns up the volume and beautiful colour on both the ferocity of Dasher’s backstory as a maltreated captive reindeer and the gentle humour of her meeting with Santa and her new life and freedom. Best of all, Dasher’s genuine love for family and drive to rescue her entire family will be satisfying to children’s innate sense of justice. By amplifying both, we end up with a wonderfully exciting read, with a vivacity of narrative style that blends incredibly well with the warm and elegant feeling of tradition in the art. This would be my pick for a Christmas read aloud at a library program, family with cousins all crowded together, or maybe a community event. It just strikes every good note, but with originality.
If you want a truly traditional story, the other book I got from Candlewick was Clement C. Moore’s ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas with incredibly lovely illustrations by P.J. Lynch. I don’t really know how Lynch accomplished it, if I’m entirely honest. We know I’m a fangirl for Lynch, but my love for this took me by surprise because– let’s be honest, folks, I’m hugely into poetry. My doctorate was reading poetry, and I reworked the whole idea I came into grad school waving around with a new plan because I thought “I don’t want to sit and read prose, I want to read poetry, how’s about I come up with a new idea, yeah?” I really love beautiful poetry. And, despite my enormous respect for Clement Moore’s achievement in writing a poem which I’m sure more people voluntarily read on an annual basis than any other, I cannot commend the poem for anything else, except, maybe, for its remarkable narrative clarity. To be blunt: it’s a pretty dull poem as a poem, isn’t it? It’s pedestrian, it’s obvious, it’s dull, it doesn’t do what I like a poem to do. I’ve seen lots of illustrated editions which, well, provide pictures which really match the poem, yep! (Hey, folks, if you want better poems to read on an annual basis, shoot me a note. I have ideas.) And then? This! Oh my goodness, which ABSOLUTE GENIUS thought to give it to P.J. Lynch? Not only is the art beautiful, I’d actually read this aloud with this edition (but no other, still, even Lynch’s art can’t retrospectively transform the words) because it’s beautifully, honestly, genuinely exciting and mysterious and I love the feeling of light glowing in the dusky darkness… It’s really, truly actually good! This is my pick for a gift book to your beloved family friend this year, if you’re looking for that.
Now, another wintry book. I have to tell you that last year I ordered a copy of Where Snow Angels Go by Maggie O’Farrell with truly special art by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini. From the UK. Because look, it wasn’t out in the USA and this lovely UK shop, the Book Nook in Hove, had a huge number of fantastic books I wanted, including this one, so I ordered them, and they arrived and I did a happy dance when my box of UK books arrived in Brookline. And let me tell you, when the lovely Candlewick people wrote to me about their holiday list and I saw this on it, I actually didn’t feel anything but joy (and an enormous sense of virtue in being honest with them and not sneakily requesting a review copy even though I had one). I told them I was really excited to see they were bringing it out here and then I told all my bookseller friends I’d loaned the book to last year that it’s coming out here, too, and we were all happy. Then I told my librarians down the road while the Spriggan sang them his “I love the library” song. It’s a truly beautiful book, and was worth the cost of shipping from the UK, but now you can get it without paying shipping from the UK! (Well, if you’re reading this in the UK, that’s not an issue.)
The book is longer and more text-rich than many picture books today, but I never felt that it was text-heavy. It’s a real, deliciously meaty story rather than a slip of a book, and while one review says it has the feeling of a bedtime story, and I can visualize that, my recommendation is to keep it for one of the first snowy days when everyone’s super excited about the falling flakes and the blanketing of soft white fluff. The kids go and play, and when they come in after building statues of snow and throwing themselves into the snow to make snow angels– that’s when you make hot cocoa and wrap them in blankets and read this aloud. The art has a muted yet glowing feeling, radiant with winter blues, and the text is both truly original and somehow classic. I’m a fan of a well done story that bursts us out of 30-odd pages with not much more than 500 words or so, but still with the tight feeling of a concise narrative. (That said, simultaneously, one of my ideal picture books is still Donald Crews’s Freight Train– I’m a creature of contrasts!) So I welcome this to the ranks of picture books for the older range of the spectrum!
Ok but not every book has to be snowy on your gift list. And I’ve got a stack of books I never reviewed that I’m ABSOLUTELY positive you and the kids in your life need.
Top of that list is The Beatryce Prophecy by the kind of team you dream of, you wish for on a falling star, and then, when they come together, they blast your star into a comet of glory. I LOVED THIS BOOK, is what I’m saying here. This is a story from Kate DiCamillo with art by Sophie Blackall, my friends, and I’m pretty sure you’re already at your local indie book shop because that’s all you need to know, right? Kate DiCamillo. Sophie Blackall. Be still my beating heart. But I’ll tell you more anyway. This is a book that has everything you want for elementary school kids. It’s a perfect read aloud for, I’d say, grades 3 and 4, but you can certainly go both younger and older. Neither author not illustrator is the sort to talk down to kids; both trust them with difficult scenarios. This book takes place in a time of war, in a setting which has the feel of an undefined “older time” with a scriptorium and a king and an evil advisor, for example. It’s story-time, in a very Diana Wynne Jones way, but fewer mythological beasts. Kate DiCamillo is absolutely clear that if you’re in such a world, you will experience war and violence, but she articulates this such that it’s vivid but never traumatic. A soldier dies a brutal death. A boy witnesses murder. But at least as important are the vivid realities of friendship, kindness, and, ultimately, a truly extraordinary moment when a character chooses not to commit violence, and another where the choice to say no to power is articulated over and over with grace and joy. And, unbelievably, the feeling on the way out is of, again, that grace, beauty, and even humour. This is a perfect holiday gift to any child who’s able to read it, honestly. Is your child diffident and unsure? They will find confidence and friendship here. Is your child too clever by half, maybe a bit cocky as a reader? This will push them to slow down and absorb the beauty, not to mention think “how did she do that?” This may be the book that turns a dreamer into a writer.
At an older level is a great favourite: Amber and Clay by Laura Amy Schlitz with art by Julia Iredale. I’ve been reluctant to read a novel in verse, honestly, because I love poetry so very deeply. Look, sometimes you care too much, and lose opportunities for enjoyment in the process. I’m grateful to my favourite booksellers and, obviously, The Children’s Book Shop, for forcing me to read this, and to Laura Amy Schlitz herself for writing it. It’s one of the most beautifully constructed narratives I’ve read recently. Along with Kaleidoscope, I think it wins my prize for doing something new in a book for kids, with different voices and a challenge to how we relate to ancient, entrenched views of history. Laura Amy Schlitz gets a prize from me for consistently trusting kids to get complexity in her books. This is not to say she falls into “both sidesism,” so to speak. Slavery is bad, end of story, for example. But this book, set in the days of waning Athenian glory, towards the end of Socrates’s life (and we even see him die, that’s the level of intimacy we get in this book), really interrogates what is right, what is justified, and yet, bluntly and authentically, what is in one’s own interest– whether another way is “right and justified” or not. (I think, and hope, that kids who read this in high school will be ready to study with Professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta in future.)
The book follows and gets into the minds of many figures, from Hermes to an enslaved boy whose name will shift, as the names of people seen as things do. And the voice of the narrative shifts with the perspective. There are different forms of verse (and she explains her poetic forms and choices at the back), and there is also prose, and also, interleaved within the story, there are artefacts, inscriptions, all explained with concision and, when necessary, honest ignorance. Perhaps what I loved most was the book’s insistence on its own imaginative interpretation of what we know and don’t know. Schlitz is clear, and I might paraphrase the feeling I got from reading it as so: “This is potentially plausible. It is also imaginary. But thought and imagination are valuable tools in relating to history, and we must use them freely and responsibly.” It was a profoundly exhilarating, saddening, enlightening read. Apply to your ego and feel it crumble with humility yet delight.
And then you always need a ghost story, don’t you? Yes, yes, I know this was supposed to be a Hallowe’en book! Well, it ended up being released in November (see above re: supply chain issues), and it’s traditional to read a ghost story at Christmas, even if you can’t find the ghost anywhere, as in Oliver Jeffers’s There’s a Ghost in This House. Slightly melancholic, infinitely mischievous and delightful. It has to be read aloud. Try to arrange for a range of ages of small children who enjoy bouncing and exclaiming, “but it’s right there!!!” while you read, ok?
Last of all, a very lovely, really enjoyable novel with really good illustrations by Paul O. Zelinsky, whose name on a cover will get me to buy anything (more on that in a future post): Da Vinci’s Cat by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. It may have been seeing that magical cover and the illustrator’s name that snagged me, but I loved reading this in a delicious gulp of fun. It’s a very smart book– a time-travel narrative that is sensory and rich but actually feels accurate in how it handles a collision of time and space. When, for example, our present-day girl, Bee, heads back to meet Federico in sixteenth-century Rome, his discovery that she has two mothers is baffling to him– on account of the distressing question of which would bring the dowry to the marriage? “Wow,” I thought, “yeah, that would do it, obviously.” Over and over again, Murdock nails her very tricky arrangements of travels through time and space, of art and clothing and cuisine, with deftness and accuracy, and without ever dropping the ball on an enormously fun and exciting narrative. I just loved it, and I think it’s the perfect vacation read for any kid, but my Changeling, now in Grade 3, had an absolute ball with it.
That’s all for now! But I have a stack of others, just waiting… And yes, more Paul O. Zelinsky art.
I’ve been wanting to review this book for about three years on November 11.
Since moving to the USA, I’ve noticed there are two days in the calendar year I feel like “a Canadian in the USA” rather than my usual muddled “dual citizen” feeling. Both are in November. There’s American Thanksgiving, which I simply dislike intensely. And there’s November 11. In Canada it’s Remembrance Day, in the USA it’s Veterans Day. I don’t dislike Veterans Day, but I have a hard time with it because it eclipses that important word: Remembrance.
It was translated to English by Sam Gordon and is published in the USA by Candlewick (this one I got myself three years ago) as Captain Rosalie, and I can’t overpraise the translation. It sings along in the child Rosalie’s voice with the lyricism of the French but the passionate honesty of a child, not sentimental, not adult. It matches Timothée de Fombelle’s skill with words and Isabelle Arsenault’s skill with art.
Rosalie is a small girl who can’t remember a time before the war began, with her father away at the front, her mother working in a factory, and the daily news of a few villages taken and recaptured here and there along the Somme. But she, too, has a secret mission. She is a small girl, 5 years old in 1917, too young for school, but the teacher lets her sit, drawing in her notebook, while her mother works in the factory and her father is off fighting. And while the others might think she is doing nothing, drawing animals with a pencil, she works at her mission.
We get clues, we readers. We know that five-year-old Rosalie, quiet but with red hair like the flame of the match lighting the stove, is no fool and that she prefers honesty to fantasy. The author gives us clues as she relates in the first person that she is watching the teacher writing symbols on the board and her mother reading her letters from her father: “I see that my mother is still reading, for a long time, although there is just a single page of writing in the envelope. I can see that she continues even when the candle stops flickering in the bedroom.” Rosalie is no fool. Isabelle Arsenault gives us clues, too. A full spread of art shows us the charcoal blacks and greys of the students’ clothes, the teacher watching one boy writing at the board, and the flames in the stove the same colour as the fiery passion of Rosalie’s hair– and, we feel, her fierce determination.
Rosalie, we know without being told, wants the truth of what’s in her father’s letters. And that her mission is to find out.
Her mother reads her letters about fishing for trout, cooking meals with walnuts and wild raspberries. She reads to Rosalie of her father fighting while the shells her mother makes fly by with her love and the support of all the women in the factories and the goodness of children like Rosalie in the schools.
These aren’t precisely lies, we readers feel: these must be the letters that Rosalie’s mother is writing in her mind, the letters keeping her going.
But no letters come after one blue envelope arrives on a snowy night.
And Captain Rosalie, seeing her mother crumple in misery, knows she must fulfill her mission soon.
We know before she does, as adult readers with a knowledge of the death toll at the Somme in 2017; child readers may not, though they’ll know it’s not good. Yes, her father was killed, but the real skill is in the telling.
Rosalie has taught herself to read, there at the back of the classroom, and with the help of Edgar, the class dunce, her lieutenant, she gets the letters, and her father’s truth: “At night I cry in the mud,” he writes, “The rain here is made of metal and fire,” and, in absolutely equally true words: “Give Rosalie a kiss.” She reads them for herself, and also the news of his death. And she does get a medal, in the end, when her mother walks in with a Croix de Guerre, a medal awarded posthumously to her father.
This is the kind of book we need, a real Remembrance Day book. The impact of her father’s loss, her mother’s inability to share directly with her, and Rosalie’s flaming determination to find knowledge, are painful. It’s a book that has to be a picture book, not because of the age of the reader (I think my daughter’s only just ready at age 8), but because of the age of the protagonist. Isabelle Arsenault is a necessary storyteller along with Timothée de Fombelle, showing Rosalie’s quiet flame alongside the muted, endangered greyness of the landscape and others. The teacher’s empty sleeve, her mother’s yearning, Edgar’s unspoken support– these are visible, the witnesses to the vicious effects of war even on the relatively safe areas.
I was shattered the first time I read this by the need I’d had for a book of this kind: a book that doesn’t diminish a single character (the mother couldn’t communicate, the father had to go, etc) but highlights, in the end, how warfare itself is a cruelty.
This, in a nutshell, is why I need Remembrance Day on November 11, and why this book is so important, as important as John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields. Yes, I am grateful for the service of veterans, today and in the past, those who have made it back and those who haven’t. But we must remember that war is cruel, the ravages of violence are real, and that, as Captain Rosalie told her mother: “I wanted to know.” And then she and her mother cry together, horribly necessary tears.
We can’t only have the good news. We need honesty. “Thank you for your service,” absolutely, but also: “I hope, one day, humanity will learn enough of kindness and integrity that nations will lay down our arms and never ask you to serve in war again.”
It’s November 11, and I see I’m finishing this as we come towards the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. I will press publish, and then I will be silent for two minutes, reflecting on the sacrifices men and women have made for our safety over here, and I will think of the honesty of their testimony to the horrors of war. And I will pray for peace in future.
Prefatory statement: The Changeling was at school and is fine. The Spriggan was in the car but is completely, 100% fine and is happily banging pot lids at the moment. I’m shaken, but fine. My husband is also fine. We are all fine.
The lane of traffic stopped, we turned. We were listening to Classical WCRB, vaguely wishing they’d have more interesting programming, as usual. Suddenly, a car is going down the next lane, and we collide. The Spriggan screams, crying, scared, and I think, “I have to get that baby out.” Then I notice the car is genuinely, actually, substantially damaged. “Huh,” I think, “after all the Bostonian near misses, it happened.” I do, finally, get the baby out, and as I do, I realize it’s that I want him out of the car, away from the road, away from vehicles. A kind lady sees me shakily clutching my chubby little Spriggan and tells me her house is right over here, can she help me. I ask if I can sit in the chair I see outside, away from the cars, away from the road, and soothe my baby. She is happy to help.
It’s so quiet, even steps away, because not seeing the cars makes them feel quiet. I nurse the Spriggan. He babbles away. Eventually I realize my husband might not see me. He’s with the car. I stand and wave. My legs feel rubbery. He’s glad to see me, the police thought we’d disappeared, but we were steps away, not miles.
Without a car, without the miles eaten by the road, my mental landscaped unfolded, a huge, uncharted territory like the world in an apple seed.
And I thought: “OK, now it’s time to share Kaleidoscope by Brian Selznick more widely, because this, exactly this, is the story of the non-narrative.”
Today is October 22. You have until the end of Hallowe’en. On November 1, 2021, I will randomly select one of you to win a copy of Kaleidoscope, and I will mail it to you, worldwide. (I mean that. I’ve mailed to Antarctica. I will mail to you.)
What do I want? Tell me about one time in your life when your world narrowed physically, but expanded mentally.
Email me at email@example.com or comment here. I’ll choose the winner on November 1! Let me know if you have a question.
Every year I do a Hallowe’en post. This year I’m horrifically late, but I have some great new additions and also I’m reiterating all the old ones because, c’mon, we all know my ultimate goal in this is to produce The World’s Most Authoritative Hallowe’en Book List.
This is my life’s work, my gift to humanity.
I’m going to put down the new books first, then highlight older books and link to my former posts. So browse deep– you will surely find a good book for a Hallowe’en-y kid in your life in there!
One of the new books this year I’m most excited about is Vampenguin by Lucy Ruth Cummins, whom we all remember fondly from Stumpkin. OK, yes, I’m a complete fangirl for Lucy Ruth Cummins, but this book is also the perfect, hit-the-nail-on-the-head balance of adorable and drily humorous. The Dracula family takes a trip to the zoo… where the littlest Dracula surreptitiously swaps places with a baby penguin. Funny penguin antics while the Dracula family, completely oblivious, pushes the baby penguin around the zoo? In the end, everyone ends up in the right place, with grown-ups never the wiser. We grown-ups never do get the full story, do we?
This year, Candlewick sent me an excellent Hallowe’en story for younger readers. Let’s just say that every preschool and kindergarten teacher will need this, but if you have kids in the three- or four-year-old range, and especially if you have an older sibling who likes reading to kids in that range? You will certainly want to get Poultrygeistby Eric Geron with pictures by Pete Oswald. Why does the chicken cross the road? Well, it might be to get to the other side, but given that the chicken didn’t look both ways… Alas, that chicken is now On the Other Side. Where the sad fowl is now expected to behave in the foul manner of the poultrygeist… Depending on your sense of humour, you will either groan or gleefully chortle along.
There’s a tendency I consider barely short of tragic to stop giving kids Hallowe’en picture books once they’re “ready for spooky or witchy novels.” Now, I love witchy novels! And graphic novels! Last year I gave my daughterThe Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner, which she really enjoyed (linking to it because she liked it, but I can’t tell you more because I haven’t read it yet, mea culpa). The Witch Family by Eleanor Estes (I reviewed it here) is adorably spooky fun! And so on.
But if you want spooky for older children, never discount the powers of a deliciously creepy picture book, because those pictures can really pack a spooky punch. Candlewick sent me P.J. Lynch’s The Haunted Lake months ago and I never got a chance to review it properly, but have always wanted to. This won’t be a “full” review, being part of the roundup, but I want you to appreciate that it’s not Hallowe’en-specific, but is perfect for that older reader who wants something decidedly creepy, something that doesn’t end with all ends perfectly knotted and tidy, and who will appreciate the glory of the art, which is rich and deep as the waters of the haunted lake. It’s an extraordinary ghost story, full of wistfulness, yearning, and unfinished feelings. The art is, well, it’s P.J. Lynch. It’s eerie and beautiful. The lake scenes are all awash in bluey-greens, truly feeling submerged in the lake, but the scenes above somehow carry that haunted feel as well. I can’t quite put my finger on how, but that’s just what makes this such a perfect Hallowe’en ghost story…
That said, sometimes you want that perfect Hallowe’en novel, the one that’s gleefully spooky, that has a decidedly creepy villain in the murky background, that has ghosts all over the place, generally pretty good ghosts, maybe even the ghost of an adorable, friendly fox? This is another one Candlewick sent me, Embassy of the Dead, by Will Mabbitt with really fun illustrations popping up by Taryn Knight. This is not, and most certainly should not be, the world’s deepest, most complex and nuanced novel. It is, and should be, an absolutely delightful read when you’re getting into that Hallowe’en mood or, maybe, it’s November 1 and you’ve got a bag of candy and don’t want to let the season get away from you without enjoying every last mini chocolate bar with a good story. The story takes off as Jake Green is wished, so he thinks, “Good morning” by a mysterious stranger one afternoon… And instead of going on a geology trip with his class, he ends up running for his life and reprieve from being consigned to the Eternal Void. (It’s on that terribly illegal road trip that he meets the ghost fox.)
But wait, you all cry, you have a baby now! Are you leaving the Spriggan out of the fun? Does the baby get a Hallowe’en book? What do you all take me for? I, ah, got a bunch of new Hallowe’en board books (because my previous collection wasn’t good enough? I’ll remind you of the older ones below.) This sweet, fun board book by Jabari Asim with art by Tara NicoleWhitaker, My Baby Loves Halloween, takes a baby just about the Spriggan’s age through the whole process of enjoying October’s fun, from pumpkins to costumes (yes of course there’s a good chunk spent on trying on every single costume, obviously), and then trick or treating! A super fun, lowkey introduction to the fun of Hallowe’en.
I’m going to highlight an older book, because I just rediscovered it and it’s absolutely wonderful, a beautifully told, beautifully illustrated, doesn’t-need-to-tell-you-everything picture book: The Widow’s Broom by Chris Van Allsburg is everything a Hallowe’en book should be. What happens to a witch’s broom when it will no longer fly?
Now, then, I’d love to spend a further 3000 words going over all the older books I love, but instead I’m going to give you links:
Last year’s post has lots of links and mini-reviews, so it’s a good place to get a recap of great books for a variety of kids.
I’ve been struggling with this post, but I had to finish it before I could do my Hallowe’en post, and I have to do that before Hallowe’en and time was ticking– so you know, it gave me a deadline, and sometimes you just need a deadline to push something onto the page. And I needed to tell you about Kaleidoscope by Brian Selznick because it’s honestly just that good. New, original, and deeply rooted in everything old and treasured. (Excellent Scholastic page for it here.) (Pssst: I’ve interspersed this with terrible scraps of photos I took with my phone of Brian Selznick’s actual art from the book because you need to get a sense for it– but please note that this is only a facet of a facet of the actual thing.)
I’m not the sort of reader who requires something new in every single book from each author. Sometimes an author really does a great job at consistency in a particular series, for example—I’m thinking of Sergio Ruzzier’s Fox + Chick books which continue to surprise and delight while maintaining a consistent pitch and voice, very much in the style of Lobel’s Frog and Toad, which, like Fox + Chick, was a decidedly original idea, but the characters and stories were maintained in a consistent form. To require novelty is not necessarily a good thing.
But when it comes, and comes in the proper time and a rush of explosive glory, I welcome it.
Brian Selznick is truly, gloriously original.
I first encountered him in The Marvels, which was the book I was thinking of when I used “explosive glory” in that earlier sentence. The Marvels followed earlier triumphs, The Invention of Hugo Cabret being, I believe, his first true published foray into the merger of art and text in his own way. I briefly go into Hugo Cabrethere, where I see I conclude with rather grandiose words (but they’re true): “if there’s one author who I really think is doing something new in modern novels, it’s Brian Selznick. The intersection of art and text is closer in his books than in any since the illuminated manuscript.” I’ve seen illuminated manuscripts aplenty, and illustrated books aplenty. I still think I’m correct in that assessment.
That was back in 2017. I haven’t kept up with everything he’s been doing, but when I was reading about Maurice Sendak his name kept coming up and eventually (I can be dim) it dawned on me that just as Sendak did new and explosive things, well, there are people he mentored, including Selznick, and maybe there’s something to that…
One day I was at a Book Shop for Big People (aka my local general bookshop, The Brookline Booksmith) and found a gorgeous book of Walt Whitman poems I’d never heard of—Live Oak, with Moss which turned out to be completely interleaved with the most extraordinary illustrations by Selznick. This collection of twelve private, deeply moving poems, exploring same-sex love, was never published before this edition, and I like to think Whitman would have been as moved by Selznick’s art as Selznick clearly was by his poetry. Together they made something beautiful. Whitman would have loved to see the culmination of this collaboration he didn’t know about. I’m sure of that as of anything.
That came out in 2019.
We all know about 2020.
I wonder what Selznick would have made if it hadn’t been for the pandemic? But, intensely original as he is, he couldn’t not respond to the fractured, cloistered, suddenly private-turned-public-forced-to-private world of the pandemic.
Early in the pandemic I heard artists debating whether this would be “good for art.” It was a rehash of the 2016 election: “It’s traumatic!” “Trauma is good for art.” “Art needs funding to exist.” “Artists make art no matter what.” “How can you make art if you’re undergoing trauma?” And on and on. The pandemic was the same but different: “I can’t make art without being paid!” “I’m bored, my gigs are all cancelled, I’m going to stream my art.” “How can I play music when I’m worried I’ll be evicted?” “Well, I can’t do anything else…”
Please note the shift to the first person. This was suddenly immediate, and personal, in a way that the projections in 2016 (which were often a bit more generalized) were not. But some of the conversation was still projection—less “what do I do today?” and more “OK, but what will this look like long-term? Can this endure as a model? Will we change how we fund art?”
To be honest, in the music world, at least, I saw nothing altered unless it was a discussion of taste. (I refer to music because it’s immediate; publishing moves slowly.) Very broadly speaking, I felt that younger enthusiasts tuning into music streams were enthusiastic about the immediacy and intimacy of artists streaming from their homes and loved the feeling of “getting to know” an artist like Angel Blue (glorious soprano!) singing her heart out without professional makeup and hair or whatever (though, Lord, she looked beautiful, professional makeup or not)—and established audiences would grumble about the imperfect recording and wish to be back in the opera house. (I’m 34 and cared more about the passion than the recording quality, I’m afraid!)
I wondered, though, if it would look different in publishing, where the results take time to come into evidence. I don’t mean books about the pandemic. It takes a lot to make me care for a book “about” trauma. Books resulting from it, though, or reflecting it… ah, that’s a different story!
So, I’m wondering, and I haven’t asked Brian Selznick this because one of the tragedies of my existence is I can’t just text him, “Hey Brian—quick question: do you think Kaleidoscope’s feeling of being caught yet free, fractured yet whole, ever-changing yet somehow permanent, is a result of your own feelings during the pandemic?” Can’t imagine why I don’t have his phone number. (Brian, shoot me an email if that sounds like the kind of text you enjoy getting at 7 am while I’m waiting for the baby to wake up.)
But I’m wondering if that set of feelings I described—first of all, would he describe his book that way, or was that simply what his art evoked in me? Second, was that set of feelings inherent to the setting he was working with (his Author’s Note describes the book as having been in development for the five years previous, but one constant throughout was a house called Port Eliot in Cornwall which definitely evokes a sense of both enclosure and freedom in the book), or was it just that the setting was receptive to setting off the feelings?
I have no idea. What I do know is that I feel that this book was the first explosion of new art, of a change in the medium of literature and visual art, I’ve experienced in response to the pandemic. Maybe there’s more in progress. But this is the first that’s landed in front of me that said new things in a new fashion, that the vehicle for the feeling had fundamentally altered.
Don’t worry, it’s absolutely the Brian Selznick you know in there: you will love this if you love an intimate intertwining of words and art such that you don’t really know where one ends and the next begins and find yourself stumbling in trying to describe it to people “well, it’s not a picture book, but it’s words with pictures, and it’s not a graphic novel, but… look you just have to experience it yourself, ok?”
But this is more. It’s ramped up to 11—no, to 12, midnight or noon, I’m not sure which. The pumpkin changes into a coach and back again.
Let me put it this way: I read it, marvelling over each page turn, and then looked around for the nearest kid the right age. I was at the synagogue and spotted the rabbi’s eldest daughter, a big reader. I quickly called out to her: “Have you read any Brian Selznick? Maybe Hugo Cabret?” Her eyes lit up: “Yes!” I held out Kaleidoscope, and she glanced through it but saw my copy was fresh and signed and promised she’d get it from the library since she didn’t want to risk spoiling my lovely copy. At home, my Changeling (she’s 8 years old now, can you believe it?) grabbed it and read it before I noticed. (This… this is not an unusual scenario.) I wouldn’t have normally given it to her yet, not before Hugo Cabret. I feel like it’s somehow too much too quickly. But she came to me after having read it, the whole way through, with a kind of fascinated frustration: “But how does it work and what does it mean?” I was astonished, because a nonlinear book like that—well. I’d never have given it to her, as I said, but if I’d thought it over beforehand, my expectation would have been that she’d just bounce off of it and put it aside. What compelled her to continue reading? She really seemed interested, so I gave her Hugo Cabret, thinking either she’d read it and get a sense of Selznick’s work at her level, or she’d be so frustrated she’d just move on. She gobbled it up and loved it. (She still remembers the definition of the apple, I just asked.)
This isn’t (just) me bragging about my daughter. (OK, I am pretty intrigued that her mind had such elasticity.) It’s also a way of saying this: while I do think this is more geared towards an older young audience, it’s accessible. It’s odd to me that “accessible” has become kind of a dirty word. All it means is that it invites people to enjoy it. Selznick does something new, but in an inviting way, an alluring fashion. It’s challenging—but inviting. It’s beautiful—and invites you to bathe in that beauty. It’s sad—but the kind of sadness that invites you to share your own feelings and be seen and heard.
One of the ways Selznick achieves this sense of invitation is by the structure—as I said, it’s nonlinear. You expect a straightforward narrative. You don’t get one. The episodic nature is fractured, like the bits inside a kaleidoscope, but relentlessly consistent: nothing old goes away, nothing new comes in. It’s all there. We have James. And a house. We explore a garden. There’s an apple. Yes, the glass lens turns, the elements shake around, the day moves on and morning turns to afternoon and evening. But nothing is new under the rising or setting sun and the world has seen your joys and afflictions— and yet each one is fresh, original, and Selznick listens to and recognizes each story as a new story which is somehow, despite its originality, recognizable as of the first day of creation. It’s mesmerizing and absorbing, and you can’t stop turning to just one more… the next picture, the next bit of the story which isn’t really a story but—
You find yourself wondering what this medium is, really. It’s visual, both from the art on the page and the images in your mind. It’s narrative, but not. It’s like reading The Eve of St Agnes or Four Quartets. Or, somehow… both in one book, but with stained glass shining on the mashed up poetry.
The closest I can come to a definition of the indefinable is that it is more truly lyric poetry than much poetry I’ve read in the past five years: lovely and challenging, alluring and absorbing.
I’ve been sitting on this review for an extremely long time.
I had a really prickly-spine-I’ll-love-this feeling about Catherynne M. Valente’s Comfort Me With Apples, which will be released October 26. (If you order it at that link, to her local, truly wonderful, book shop, Print: A Bookstore in Portland, Maine, you can get it signed and personalized!)
Given my prickly-spine-I’ll-love-this feeling, I requested a review copy almost as soon as the book was announced. They kindly sent it (along with The Past Is Red, which I also reviewed), and I read it immediately.
I think it might be the best novella I’ve ever read, certainly it’s one of my top reads of 2021, of all the books I’ve read this past year, for any age and in any genre—
And I don’t know how to review it.
First of all, the practical question: who is the audience and where would you shelve it? (This is how I think of genre—genre is a tricky beast and to my mind it all comes down to “where to put it on a shelf in a book shop or library,” otherwise the question is all but meaningless.) Well, I wouldn’t give it to anyone too young, definitely, but within books for adults, it’s best shelved…
I HAVE NO IDEA.
Well, the plot—
Wait, no, I can’t tell you anything, not one iota, about the plot or it ruins the entire book. The same goes for the characters. The setting. Even the atmosphere is almost indefinable.
The best way to read this book is the way I made my husband read it: I shoved it into his hands and said, “Open it to the first page, start reading with the first word, and carry on in perfect sequence without flipping ahead at all and just read it all to the last word of the last page.”
This is a hard way to sell a book so many people should read, and should read for no better nor worse reason than “it’s just so good you should read it.”
This is both frustrating and wonderful for me as a reviewer. Normally I can use lots of things to convey the feel of a book and try to send off a signal to the kind of person who would like it that they should read it. I can delve into character and plot. For this book I can only explain that this book provides an absolutely unique experience to you as a reader; no other book will do what this book does, and that’s all I can say. That’s why it’s getting reviewed here on The Children’s Bookroom even though it’s decidedly not geared towards kids. Parents of kids, teachers of kids, librarians for kids need to read it– and it’s exactly we who love children’s books who need to read it. Because we’re the ones with the sense memory for it.
It starts with a pleasant scene, and because it’s pleasant, we of course feel uneasiness. This opening sets the tone for the whole book. Everyone knows that a book that begins like this one—with a sense of pleasure—is not going to continue in perfect pleasantness, because books don’t do that. (“But why? I mean, everything is fine, it doesn’t have to not be fine, books can be fine, right? Except, no, though, what’s going to happen in the book, it can’t be fine or nothing will happen and then what’s a book without a thing that happens?”) So what will break the pleasant feeling? Where will the fracture to the peace come in? You’re tense, anticipating disruption. Why? Because that’s what books do, they disrupt… right?
And, yes, things are disrupted, indeed, yes, in a way. There is, absolutely, a growing sense of danger or threat or—I’m not entirely sure how to define it. One could, potentially, shelve this book in a horror section, given the level of darkness, simply because people who enjoy a dark read would enjoy this book. The elements are all there.
But I love the book and I don’t read horror. I would never read horror. Why would I browse in the horror section? Looking at the excellent blurbs I also see words like “thriller” (I don’t read thrillers), and “mystery” (I like mysteries, but don’t often browse for them), and I see “fairy tale” which is true and certainly would catch my interest, but it’s not what you think at first and anyway there’s not often a fairy tale section in a book shop though I’d love it if there were–
But the point is: horror, mystery, thriller, fairy tale—they’re all true. So where do you put it? And if you put it in any of those places, people like me would miss it. That breaks my heart.
And I’m not sure it inherently belongs in any one of those places, as you’d probably understand after reading the book, but the point of shelving books by genre is to get people to begin reading, so where should it go?
Such a dilemma.
So I will say these things:
Remember that the author knows a wide swathe of media. She knows art and literature, history and pop culture, film and television. I think she draws on pretty much everything, going into this.
If you love a noir element, the slow unfolding of truth, and a final punch in the final paragraph—this is for you. There’s a feel to it like watching Breathless (À bout de souffle).
If you love subtle atmospheric writing, lyrical text without explicit poetry, but the with the spareness of something between Emily Dickinson’s vision and T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, this is for you. (If it weren’t such a low-traffic area, maybe shelve it in poetry, even though it’s not a poem?)
If you love apples, this is for you. It’s got a lot of good food in it, too (it’s not a cookbook).
If you love falling in love with a character so that your emotions are really bound up in her even though you’re not sure you know her fully, not quite, this is for you. (But don’t shelve it in relationships or self-help.)
It’s fiction, ultimately, but more than fiction, because it goes right all around fiction and finds truth on the other side of it.
And the place, the really good place, to shelve it is in a section I’ve never seen in a book shop or a library:
“This is where you should go if you’re a grown-up who was a kid who loved getting caught up reading a book you hadn’t known could be written, didn’t think of reading, couldn’t imagine not reading, and then once you were reading it you couldn’t put it down even when called to supper or sent to bed—and now you’re grown up and want that experience all over again.”
That’s about it, really.
So when the book comes out (October 26, pre-order here), grab this, and an apple you picked yourself in an orchard, take the first, juicy bite, and lose yourself in this book so entirely you forget you’re holding an apple.
First of all, I warn you that this is a very long piece, unusually long. Why? This is a book that means a great deal to me as a reader, particularly as a Jewish reader, because it begins to grapple with questions I was asking about 20 years ago—and I’ve been looking for books dealing with these questions for about that long, too. Books like that don’t get quick and light reviews; books that make you think and mean that much to you deserve context, they deserve thought and analysis.
It is tempting to say this book is an original and powerful exploration of growing up in unprecedented times, but that would be to diminish it. I could say it’s a book of historical fiction set over the course of the period before, through, and in the immediate aftermath of WWII in Britain and Germany. That sounds dreary and like a book it is Our Very Stuffy Duty to Read, though, and this is not in the least a dreary, dutiful book. It is, against all odds, a book with quickness, humanity, and humour, it is deft and feels light to read—even as it is weighty with meaning and tells you of heartbreak and pain, as well as of hope for tomorrow.
One of the remarkable things about Hilary McKay’s writing is, in fact, how hard it is to pin down what’s remarkable about it in words. I still haven’t reviewed her novel The Time of Green Magic because it’s so incredibly beautiful, funny, and it’s a powerful reading experience in a way I can’t quite nail in words. So I gave up before I tried and now I’m cleverly slipping my recommendation in here to ask you to read it. (Read it aloud to your family, that’s my advice. It’s how I did it, and it was the single most successful read-aloud we’ve had as a family. I think it’s the closest we’ve come to a new Diana Wynne Jones or Joan Aiken book in a very long time.)
But I’m sliding away from this, her latest, The Swallows’ Flight (out in the USA on October 19) because that’s another one that’s hard to nail. However, since Hilary McKay generously mailed me an advance proof to me from England despite crazy Covid-and-everything-else messing up the mail service, I just can’t give up and not tell you about it. Besides, it’s so new and meaningful I need to add my voice to the chorus of recommendations. And there was something so incredibly powerful about reading it during the Covid-19 pandemic. It was a complete challenge to that first, reductive reviewer impulse: what is “unprecedented”, after all? (A side note: pandemics are not unprecedented, nor are political upheavals in the midst of pandemics. Please.)
I have to start with the book that technically precedes The Swallows’ Flight, originally titled The Skylarks’ War in the UK, published as Love to Everyone in the USA (with an unbelievably lovely cover by Rebecca Green), and then, when released in paperback in the USA, the paperback used the UK title and cover art. I’m only going into all that because you have to read it, and you should know there are two titles and two covers but the same wonderful book, so don’t get (too) confused—just read it.
I’ll be upfront: you do not technically need to have read The Skylarks’ War to understand The Swallows’ Flight. The stories are distinct, they will stand alone (again, rather like Diana Wynne Jones’s style of writing, if you think of her Chrestomanci books). That said, you will better appreciate The Swallows’ Flight for having read the first book, both in terms of appreciating the characters and in terms of immersing yourself in the nuances and the impossibly straightforward intricacies of Hilary McKay’s style of telling you a story. Besides, it’s a wonderful book and you won’t regret reading it. Even if she does smash your heart to pieces at one point I won’t mention. (I just re-read it to get to write this from a fresher memory and I cried all over again.)
In The Skylarks’ War, Hilary McKay takes us through the period leading up to WWI and through the war with a set of characters who are so vividly real you look up from the book expecting them to be sitting across from you, doing schoolwork or figuring out meal planning despite rations. At the end, you’re sad the book is over because you’ve come to love them so much you just need to know what they’re doing tomorrow. Oh, and you’ve also lived through the horrors of WWI, incidentally, and yet… not incidentally at all; it’s in the marrow of the book. A taste? I’ll give you her description of the Western front: “The line was the shape of a long, lopsided smile. A ravenous, expectant smile. A greedy, unreasonable smile, considering how very, very well it was fed.” (p. 214 in the hardback, US edition of Love to Everyone.)
This style (the vivid characters, the tangible reality of life, and the sense of history being contemporary) is definitely the background to The Swallows’ Flight, but Hilary McKay pushes the envelope with a calmness and fearlessness that’s breathtaking although I can sort of imagine her reading that and saying briskly, “Nonsense. I just told the story, you know.” (When I finished reading the book I wrote to her to say that I greatly admired her use of silences and deliberate pauses in the book and she replied that, oh, no, the silences are mostly where she got stuck. I blinked, and I’m going to be terribly arrogant and argue with the actual author: There’s so much richness to those pauses and silences that it reminds me of my impulse in university to write an essay about the vivid use of silence in King Lear, thinking of Cordelia, and how I related Shakespeare’s silences to Berlioz’s powerful rests in La symphonie fantastique… But I digress.)
So Hilary McKay, to our great delight, writes more for us about those friends from The Skylarks’ War! And yet, The Swallows’ Flight does not open with our friends in Britain. She begins in Germany.
I feel like inserting a comic book sound effect:
That’s a shocker, after reading a WWI book about these English folks and falling in love with them, isn’t it? Facing the onset of WWII in Germany??? How and why and—
And now I’m going to tell you a story.
I don’t really remember how old I was when I learned about the Holocaust. Too young, I expect. I vaguely remember hearing the name “Hitler” and saying: “who’s that?” And my sister, amazed, replied, “You don’t know who Hitler was?” And my parents shushed her and tried an explanation. Over time, though, I know that I learned too much, too young, because I got scared at nights. I’d hear a dog and see a light through the window at night and as a shadow passed I’d think of the Gestapo knocking on doors. Also, I found my mind grinding on a question: “What about the ordinary German soldiers? Not the Gestapo, not the SS. What about those who were drafted to fight on the front lines, willing or unwilling? Who were they?”
I remember feeling guilty for wondering that. If they were fighting for Hitler, they were Bad People. Brainwashed, maybe? But there’s no possible way they were Ordinary People, because Ordinary People are Good, and if they were Good People they would have refused, would have gone in the Resistance, would have stood up to the regime. They can’t have been Good.
Of course, as I grew, my impressions did, as well: “How do Good People come to do Bad Things?” I grew even older, like actually 16 years old or something, when you’re definitely so grown up, right? And I soon learned that was an entire topic of research, with studies and data and all that stuff. But still I gnawed on my questions periodically: “But who were the ordinary soldiers, infantry, foot soldiers being sent out? Why did they fight?” And I still got occasional bouts of sleeplessness, and I still thought of the Gestapo at night if I read a book or saw a movie about the Holocaust. And I don’t think I ever questioned directly why people (“people” being, by nature, a group of individuals) were talking about historical groups of “people” as indistinct masses entirely lacking in individuals.
This is where we have a montage of calendar sheets whipping across the screen as we advance towards the 2020 elections…
And now we’re in 2020 but we’re looking back towards 2016, saying things like, “Remember people saying Trump wasn’t really racist? Remember people saying he wouldn’t try to sway or overturn elections? Remember when it seemed alarmist to talk about the rise of fascism in a country like the USA?” Ah, nostalgia! I wipe a tear from the corner of my eye, facetiously. What we may have elided from memory is that at the time of the 2020 elections, many celebrities started to come out to push people to vote in such numbers that the outcome would be indisputable. And after the attack on the Capitol, a second flood of messages went out.
One of the most famous clips was Arnold Schwarzenegger talking about his painful past, growing up after WWII, among, as it were, Ordinary People who had fought for a terrible regime.
To me, this was important in taking a wobbly step towards answering my childhood questions: people just did the next thing and the next thing, he said, and found themselves fighting for Hitler, and then, in his words, “I was surrounded by broken men drinking away the guilt over their participation in the most evil regime in history.” He continued, “They were in physical pain from the shrapnel in their bodies, and in emotional pain from what they saw or did.” Oof.
I’m a Jew. That means that to me, the immediate story was always that set of his last words: “what they saw or did,” those participants in Hitler’s regime—what they did to my people. But I needed to know how they did it, because the secondary story was always “could it happen again?” Living through 2020 felt just a tad bit too real for comfort. So what we need, in my view, is to answer those difficult childhood questions of mine about the ordinary people—not, I want to state firmly, as Research Questions on How Good People Did Bad Things, but as individuals, as Schwarzenegger described. I’m sorry, scientists (talking to my husband here) but data sets can’t predict individuals’ feelings, and feelings can and do precipitate surprising actions.
Let’s have an analogy. I was recently doing some research on music as therapy for a side project. That means I inevitably encountered the “Mozart is so good for babies!” chirpy research. One item I read took it quite far, one might say, if you’ve got my sense of humour, hilariously far, because it did consider the next questions. Questions like: hm, maybe you could use other Classical music with your babies? There are composers beyond Mozart, right? But the author sort of balked there: be careful these non-Mozart composers aren’t overstimulating their tender brains, this book added anxiously. I wasn’t sure, based on the book, what was acceptable. Consier: if you’re pregnant, that tender zygote may get badly overstimulated by… I wasn’t sure about that bit, honestly, maybe Gluck’s Orfeo would be just too much… and then… OK well the book didn’t say what would happen if the fetus were overstimulated by this untested, non-Mozart-music. I got the impression that had the author encountered the question of what pieces by Mozart to introduce your fetus-to-child-to at what ages and when you can move from, say, the clarinet concerto to opera, that author may have needed to be handed the sal volatile and shown to a fainting couch. Could we distinguish between the stimulations of Papageno and Sarastro? What about Don Giovanni vs The Magic Flute? I have no idea. Neither did the author, I assure you.
I’m guessing we’re all giggling together here, unless I’ve offended you, in which case… I’m sorry, but to me it is very funny. It’s utterly absurd to treat the entire, diverse musical oeuvre of such a composer as Mozart as a single unit, isn’t it? Hah! And every other composer as another unit, to be treated with caution? That’s adorable, really.
Fine, but Mozart was one composer and both Eine kleine Nachtmusik and his Requiem come from the same person with the same mind and the same brain though at different times. They are, in effect, more of a unit than masses of individuals who were all treated as a single mass in warfare—but weren’t.
So why do we treat the entire non-Jewish population of Germany as a unit to be researched and understood like a data set and then get shocked that we don’t understand the situation?
Hilary McKay did something phenomenal to balance that “People As Big Data” scenario:
She didn’t write a Holocaust book. Instead, she looked and said “the Holocaust is not my story, but I can train a broader lens here.” This is a historical fiction book set in the period around WWII in Britain and Germany. This book does not directly address or describe the Holocaust at all, which makes perfect sense coming from a non-Jewish author, and is the only proper way to grapple the question of the war and the individuals of the story, as well as that “ordinary people” question. (To reassure readers: yes, she does contend with the situation of the Jews, including British Jews’ and non-Jews’ reactions to Kristallnacht, with a sensitivity for which I was grateful as a Jewish reader, but she very firmly states it is not her place to tell the story of what Jews suffered, so she doesn’t.)
OK so after way, way too many words of background I’m getting to the book. I’m extremely sorry, but this was all necessary, at least to me.
Hilary McKay’s approach is extremely direct: rather than dealing with Germany, Britain, and the world as a whole, she gets to know people. Her way of doing that is that of the storyteller or novelist: her cast of characters is a few family units who know each other. By showing us a tableau of individuals with different personalities, abilities, backgrounds, sympathies, and sensitivities forming relationships with each other across a single timeframe and a variety of geographies she is able to do much, much more than any analysis which treats the generality of the human population like so many data points or a colony of fruit flies to be analyzed en masse.
Hilary McKay builds these relationships between families and their friends in Germany, then over in Britain. As war is declared, boundaries blur and people travel, relationships break and are formed. Characters grow, develop, learn, mature, cry, and are bowed with grief. Because we see them as people, indeed they really are people, our minds stretch to see how people in Britain and Germany reacted to their time and space in new ways.
I’m feeling myself get excited here because Hilary McKay exemplifies the value of imaginative literature here. It’s an exercise for the brain—what Diana Wynne Jones calls a way of training our minds to solve problems. Imagination isn’t merely escape from reality, though it can be, and that’s a matter of value in its own right. Better yet, though, it’s a way to cure hurt and solve problems with those two words: “What if…?” By going “Well, what if we put this sort of person in this sort of situation…” an author can imagine a world and come up with an answer to how such and such would even go.
This is where I’m going to write in two branches. First, I’m going to try to write a relatively brief (hah, but really I am— if a little late) review of the book in general terms, spoiler free. Next, I’m going straight to the spoiler zone in order to analyze a few points of plot and character to pieces. (I’m telling myself this is legitimate because I made my husband read this book before I wrote it up and after we discussed it, I felt there were points that merited extra attention. OK, I’m definitely into this book, let me talk, got it?)
The structure of this book isn’t the traditional, straightforward, lyrical narrative of The Skylarks’ War, which very much follows Clarry, at least initially, and only later quietly fractures, with the war, into other characters’ points of view. The Swallows’ Flight, from the very beginning, is splintered into numerous parallel narratives. Practically speaking, there are all of the lovely characters we met last time, and surely we need to catch up with them—but then why start in Germany? And who is the dog who shows up? And why? Hilary McKay throws us off-balance, from the first page, by wrapping us in love, trust, and intimacy while we’re expecting to go into warfare and instability. And that, in and of itself, is a destabilizing act. Then the trust and openness break into silences and troubled thoughts, as war comes once more. As we progress, each chapter break sends us elsewhere in time, space, and character viewpoint, but with such Hilary McKay’s brisk, confident narrative voice and style it’s never confusing. The march of the book takes us through increasing tension in Germany: our characters there start to lower their voices or simply refrain from discussing certain things, and ultimately are sent to war. In Britain, we’ve been busy falling in love with the kids of our friends from the last book—only to see them head off to war, too. And that dog? The dog pulls it together, all in the life of a dog.
It’s a beautiful, woven book. Not a pure “and then” narrative, but more like the Bayeux Tapestry: moving from scene to scene, all in an overarching tight shape. In true Hilary McKay form, you won’t find a single extraneous word.
To get more into the nitty gritty now.
Hilary McKay starts with a new character, Erik, who has rescued a nest of baby swallows, and when he’s trying to feed them insects to keep them alive and bring them up so they can fly away, he recognizes he needs to recruit helpers. He swaps his own small treasures for insects, and thus makes friends with Hans, who is so taken by the swallows that he helps find insects without swapping for them. They watch the birds fly away, Erik almost tumbles out the window from exhaustion since he’s been hunting insects and feeding the baby birds nonstop, Hans pulls him back… and they become fast friends.
So we start with a pair of fast friends. They can tell each other everything. Just like Erik, who lives alone with his mother since his father died for Germany in WWI, can tell his mother everything, and she trusts him absolutely.
Except, of course, these warm, loving ties can’t extend to perfect confidence in Hitler’s Germany.
Fraulein Trisk, Erik’s neighbour, he notices, is no longer there at some point. He asks his mother after her, recalling that she used to light her stove on Saturdays. No, his mother says, flustered, on Sundays, definitely not on Saturdays. Erik is quiet, recalling that Trisk is a Jewish name.
That’s an example of one of the silences I remarked on above, that Hilary McKay uses so deftly.
Ruby Amaryllis never tells her brother, Will, she forgives him for his jealous nastiness to her as a child. He never tells her he is sorry.
And the power of their reconciliation is one of the most beautiful, truly breathtaking moments at the end of the book. I will be honest: I did not think she could pull that off. I was so angry at Will. And yet their reconciliation was moving and believable. We, the readers, can still be angry at Will, and yet, with Ruby, forgive him. Just as, in life, we may forgive a wrong, but the memory of the wrong still provokes a surge of anger.
How does Hilary McKay navigate these multifaceted plots with a variety of viewpoints punctuated by potent silences?
Like this: You, the reader, know full well that it’s hard to say: “I get it now. We had to make up with each other. It was a two-way street, and I wasn’t ready, either. I’m ready now. Are you?” Ruby couldn’t, quite. Neither could Will. They found their own language, and we got to listen in. That’s not to say they’re ideal, in fact. It’s to say, actually, that they’re imperfect. A full, open, wordy heartfelt conversation would be a therapist’s ideal conclusion for them. They’d cry, probably. But this was far more real to the characters, and to the reader.
Erik and Hans, too, have a complex conclusion. They’re beautiful characters. We have to face that they’re Germans, they were fighting on the wrong side. There is, as my husband said, a bit of idealization in their being moved out of the action early (I won’t say how, even as I’m spoiling things here), but it’s necessary to understanding who they are, no matter how improbable the circumstances. And yet—poor Hans. At least Erik knows his mother was (silently) doing the right thing. Hans is grieving his lost sister who was, in part, miserable she couldn’t do more of the wrong thing. An extra burden to bear. And one which is entirely, completely unspoken. And believable, deeply true even if the characters are fictional.
We never see, in action, the ends of some of the characters’ stories—but they, too, feel far too true. Uncle Karl. I will say no more.
Diana Wynne Jones repeated, forcefully, in the essays and speeches I’ve been reading in the glorious volume Reflections: On the Magic of Writing that it’s important to know your characters intimately—but you shouldn’t feel obligated to share every detail; if you know them well, everything will come across. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this more potently than in reading The Swallows’ Flight. In this brief book, I travelled far and deep with every character, and learned an enormous amount about the real powers of imagination and character. The essential importance of fiction to understanding reality, to learning history, is boundless, and I feel that too often we say treat it as a very nice way to keep children engaged, you know, and get them interested in reality, where reality is supposed to be data sets which teach us to reduce real people to blocks in a row of a study. Well, everyone has a story. Hilary McKay reminds us of that with a vigor for which I’m grateful.
Hilary McKay’s characters, as she knows them and you will know them, are very human. This means they’re heartrendingly imperfect. Hans, again, has to grapple with a wide variety of types in his family. We see the flaws alongside the warmth. I’m imperfect. You’re imperfect. Hilary McKay would fully admit she’s imperfect.
But one thing is perfect in my eyes: Finally, someone took the step to think the hard, uncomfortable thoughts about being flawed, struggling humans in the inhumane landscape of WWII, on the wrong side.
I want to write about them in the same post for two reasons: a) While they are very different in the experiences they narrate, each gives foundation and visceral depth to the other; b) Given the differences, I like that they show there is really no excuse not to read Black voices. One spoke to me more than the other as an audience; both taught me a lot. There’s a book out there for everyone.
The Black Friend, by Frederick Joseph, is fundamentally a kind of personal memoir with lessons one could draw, geared towards middle school kids: Grade 7 and up according to the Candlewick website. But what I loved in it is that it’s not just a collection of his own experiences, but a broader story. Frederick Joseph practices listening as he preaches it, notably by sharing his platform of the written, published page with others: he includes conversations with Africa Miranda, Jamira Burley, Saira Rao, among others, and includes lists of people to research, books to read, movies to watch, music to listen to in order to broaden our own understandings, enrich our experiences. I love the exemplification of sharing, listening, absorbing. There is nothing in the world more powerful than demonstrating that you care by caring. The book also includes a very good “Encyclopedia of Racism” at the back (a glossary of terms bolded throughout the book) which is clear, compact, and worth the price of admission in its own right.
Now, I rarely review a book that I feel doesn’t speak directly to me, where I don’t feel that I’m the audience intended for the book, but this is a case where I did feel a bit lost, and yet I’m reviewing because: a) I think it’s important enough that I want to talk about it anyway, b) I don’t really care that it didn’t speak to me because I learned from it anyway, c) I think we need more books like this one, there’s definitely room for more, and if we create buzz, there will be more demand! Yay!
When I say it didn’t speak directly to me, I mean that in a specific way: everything that matters about it certainly did speak to me. There’s a case where a substitute teacher fundamentally (I suspect deliberately) misunderstood Frederick and his school friend, Fatimah, in Grade 2 (my daughter’s grade last year, probably why this incident stuck out to me), accusing them of cheating on a test because they both got a perfect grade. She forced them to retake it under her direct supervision during recess, neither made a perfect grade (who would, under the circumstances?), which she took as evidence of prior cheating, and made a lot of additional comments, including (oh I got mad at this): “You can be the ones to get your families out of your neighborhoods, but not if you’re cheating yourselves.” I closed the book and took deep breaths after that whole episode. (If you’re a teacher reading this, I know you’re not that kind of teacher, but I’m going to say this anyway: As a teacher, your job is to elicit and bolster what your students have to offer the world. Don’t ever shut them down because they’ve got what you don’t. Learn from them.)
I was a bright kid who occasionally had teachers who resented my brightness. I never, of course, got that level of treatment– I’m white and I know it helped me. Seeing it ramped up to 11 like that burned me to read.
So: these stories of incidents which clearly caused Joseph pain at the time (and I know must have hurt in the retelling– I want to thank the author and all those he interviewed for reliving these episodes for us) are told clearly and provide visceral, emotional understanding, whatever your age and background. This would be a fantastic book to read in an early high school class for that reason– it would generate brilliant conversations between teachers and students.
Where I was at a disconnect was honestly a mere matter of style, which mattered but still taught me something. Frederick Joseph uses music and movies and pop culture to bolster his narrative and give support to certain arguments. Chapter 2: “We Can Enjoy Ed Sheeran, BTS, and Cardi B” is a particularly excellent example, as it discusses something I consider an important point for teachers, in particular, to understand. In Joseph’s words: “In countries like America, where most aspects of culture are controlled by white people, their culture has become the norm or mainstream.” What this means is that white people who understand popular culture feel that they’re super on top of things, but really only get “mainstream” (white) culture, while Black people absorb their own AND white “mainstream” culture. In short: they know more because they have to get the white field as well as their own. He proves this point anecdotally through an experiment. He has a diverse group of friends over to listen to music, playing a variety of mainstream white artists, everyone would have heard them and could sing along. Non-white artists mostly went unrecognized by his white friends, but non-white friends were familiar with the music.
Problem for me: I grew up with an understanding of music that ended with Gustav Mahler. I can tell you that Richard Wagner was a complete jerk on every level, basically invented the Aryan ideal of white, Germanic manliness– and also was so very sensitive he could only wear silk or satin underwear– but the points Joseph was making about Nelly required a bit of research. I was totally out of my depth because not only was I ignorant of the non-white music he referenced, I… also didn’t know the white stuff. (Cue memories of sitting at the edge of the school cafeteria because I had no idea what was going on and didn’t even fit in with the misfits. Remember my story about researching transmission of folklore? Yeah, that was me. But at least no one called me a terrorist– another story in The Black Friend.)
That said, even though I was way out of there on the cultural references, I appreciated his perspective on the issue, because what he says about his type of music is true about mine– and then some. The Classical music world (my darling baby, I love it so much) is woefully ignorant of the entire history of Black composers and musicians. (Did you know Jessye Norman sang Sieglinde at the Met, though? She’s phenomenal, and the experience of watching her is enhanced by the gut-deep knowledge that if Wagner had been alive to see and hear her, it would have killed him to experience her brilliance.) I only really started to think seriously about this problem by reading articles by the wonderful scholar Dr. Kira Thurman and following her tips to learn about such figures as George Bridgetower and Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. I’m dropping those notes here not to show off, but because I want to prove that there is good, diverse material out there the white Classical music world is ignoring. (Children’s book world: there’s picture book biography material out there in those names. Hop to it.) And I say “ignoring” rather than “ignorant of” because given the work of such people as Dr. Thurman, the information is there. If you’re not using it, you’re ignoring it.
Every story in The Black Friend felt a bit like that to me as I read, on a personal level: I got something from everything he wrote, but I knew, honestly, that this is a book for middle grade and high school kids who will thoroughly enjoy adding all his music ideas to their phones. And I hope they will.
One last note: it will, it absolutely will, drag up memories and stories for you, whoever you are. That substitute teacher story combined with a racist-relative-story reminded me of the time my husband and I were looking to go from keeping the Changeling with our wonderful part-time babysitter to putting her in a small home daycare. It was a deeply emotional experience for me; the babysitter was a friend, a companion, the person I’d trusted with my baby for so long. We found a potential daycare, and, wonder of wonders, the daycare was looking to hire an assistant and was interested in hiring our babysitter! Get her a stable job right away and ease our kid’s transition and keep in touch with her? Win, win, win!
Until it all fell apart. The daycare owner turned out to be horribly racist. Our babysitter’s first language was not English and the daycare owner kept criticizing it. (NB: Our babysitter worked hard on her English, she was basically fluent, and as a pedantic academic I will tell you that Madam Daycare Lady made several common grammar bloopers of her own while I’m relatively sure her Spanish was nonexistent.) Further, she made snide remarks about our babysitter’s family and her mother (I will not go into the babysitter’s family situation here, but suffice it to say I was livid— I knew the mother and you cannot find a mother anywhere who did more for her family).
We did not send our daughter there. The lady semi-apologized to us (not to the babysitter, the one she’d harmed, but us, because she was losing our money) and said she “really wasn’t racist.” This is about 6 years ago so I’m not 100% sure what we replied, but I hope we said, “Oh, but you are.”
There’s one thing, though, that, after reading The Black Friend, I know now I would do, wish I had done, for the babysitter. I was upset that she’d had to go through that experience. I was horrified by it. I brought her tissues as she cried in my living room and said she’d rather not work with the person. I told her she certainly shouldn’t consider working with her, and my daughter would never go there.
I don’t think I said: “And I’m so sorry we brought you there, that we put you in that situation.” Today, I hope I would take that level of responsibility. Whether or not it was deliberate, she was there because I made the introduction. I would like to acknowledge that.
And I hope that you, too, will read this book and consider your own responsibilities.
Box, the story of Henry Brown, a man who was born enslaved and mailed himself to freedom, is told in haunting, lyrical, thoughtful verse by Carole Boston Weatherford with art by Michele Wood, an illustrator whose work reflects and enhances the geometry and layers of the text. I was so incredibly impressed that I immediately gave my daughter’s school library the copy I was sent for review and bought my own.
To me, this was a book which drew out every layer of beauty and suffering in a way that was intuitive both to my soul and my training. The poetry is exquisite in its own right, and the levels of meaning and nuance in form and substance elevate it further.
The book tells Brown’s story in a series of sixains to reflect the box as a cube, which are each a poem alone, but also part of a growing narrative. The thought, the detail, and the skill are stunning, and the way the poetry draws you in is as immersive as any storytelling, while simultaneously using poetic techniques to evoke emotional and thoughtful responses.
Teaching note: You could use these during April, Poetry Month, pulling a few sixains out to show how you can take an manipulate a form. “Letter” is a poetic letter in six lines. “Manifest” is a poem of six words, six lines, meaning each one-word line has a LOT of work to do, pulling the whole six words into a punch to the gut. “Family” is longer, more lyrical, more diffuse. Can your students choose a form and use it in three different ways to do three different jobs?
Why do I suggest this for April, Poetry Month, not Black History Month, you wonder? (But you could do both.) You know the answer already.
Poetry, like music, is not just the “mainstream” white material Frederick Joseph so correctly points out we white audiences keep going back to. Add to that “mainstream” material! Read Gwendolyn Brooks and, yes, Carole Boston Weatherford!
As for the illustrations: the textures and colours are incredible and evocative. There’s a contrast between the softness and fluidity Wood uses in representation of family and sorrow (especially, to my mind, as Henry loses his wife, Nancy, and their children in “Snatched”), and the geometric lines as the box is built and mailed. I love the use of lines and textures for quilts vs formal textiles, for wood vs brick. And the potent, brilliant colours call to mind some strange, lovely blend of Vincent van Gogh and Ashley Bryan.
Once again, a thank you to Candlewick for the review copies. I felt quite humbled by the level of skill, emotion, and impact these books held.
It’s been ages since I wrote about a book for grown-ups. This one, The Past Is Red(to be released July 20, 2021; if you use that link, you can request a signed and personalized copy from a fabulous indie book shop!) unequivocally, is for grown-ups. But I’m still recommending it to you, and to everyone.
How it happened was this:
Catherynne M. Valente is one of my favourite authors working today, and though I first encountered her as an author of novels for kids (Fairyland—soon being released in a boxed set!), she, like Neil Gaiman, is very much an Author of Many Kinds. In fact, the reason I started reading her books was due to a Neil Gaiman blurb, and I really felt a kinship of wildness in their work as I read: “Let me do all the things ever” they seem to tell you.
So she writes poetry and novellas and that chonky fantasy series and science fiction and basically everything but gritty realism. I hope she never does write gritty realism because I’d end up reading it and my system couldn’t take the shock.
In June 2018, Subterranean Press published a gorgeous collection from Cat Valente, The Future Is Blue, and the title novella of the collection, well. You could say it was a success, but since this is my blog I’m going to say my reaction: I’ve never been quite the same person since. It was shattering. Partly it was shattering because of the devastation and hope and heartache of the story, but in large part it was because I do not read stories about “what happens when human beings have literally trashed the planet to the point of the collapse of civilization and those who are left are living on a floating mound of garbage called Garbagetown.” I know books about devastation and post-apocalyptic nightmares are out there—for other people, not for me. But I read it, voluntarily, and I thought it was beyond good, I thought it was magnificent, and I still haven’t recovered from the shock.
When The Past Is Red was announced I was hardly surprised—of course there had to be more. (Though my daughter immediately asked “Will there also be The Present Is Purple? Blue and red make purple! And Past and Purple alliterate.”) I pre-ordered it, but I was scared. I mean… I barely survived The Future Is Blue. “I have until July,” I thought, morosely, “then I’ll see if I make it.”
Then another book by Cat Valente was announced that got me so excited that I wrote to Tor to see if I could get a review copy. It was a gamble: who’s crazy enough to give a kids’ book reviewer a Grown-Up Book to review? Especially from an author as popular as Catherynne M. Valente? I made my politely stupid and absurd pitch, but the publicist actually replied without laughing in my face and kindly offered me not only that book (review to come—in the future) but this one. I helplessly said “yes, please and thank you.” And thought to myself “welp I’m screwed, this is it.”
First I’m going to tell you: this book is beautifully designed, and it has The Future Is Blue before The Past Is Red, all in one tidy volume, in case you missed the Subterranean Press physical edition (you can still get the collection as an ebook). The cover art is insanely well done, by John Hendrix.
Second, despite my fears, I’m actually still alive, even though I did have crazy dreams after reading The Past Is Red.
The Past Is Red may tell a terrible story of the dregs of a bloated, overgrown, and ultimately depleted world, but it’s an oddly hopeful, beautiful, healing story about loss, death, and spiritual resilience despite apparent resignation.
And, in the face of Covid-19… I couldn’t help thinking it was the ultimate guide to creating and maintaining loving relationships in the face of the most drastic social distancing. Ostracized, left behind, and loathed on a physical and spiritual level, our protagonist, Tetley Abednego, never loses sight of how the depths of humanity are available to everyone, even on a floating pile of garbage. Unlike the fuckwits who trashed the earth and wasted our world, she knows who and what we can be, with or without a jacuzzi. Unlike the inheritors of the fuckwits who continue to hate her because they want to be fuckwits, Tetley looks herself and her world in the eye and knows that there is enough.
Tetley was never even supposed to make it through childhood, and she was, over and over again, not supposed to survive, she wasn’t even wanted. By the end of The Future Is Blue, she’s the most hated girl in Garbagetown. Despite that, she is the unflinchingly realistic voice of affirmation and acceptance in the face of hatred— even her own hatred— everyone needs to hear.
There is hope, life matters, and you, in and of yourself, are enough. Sure, we’re all garbage, but we’re beautiful garbage. And we matter.
It was the most devastating form of healing I’ve endured. Tetley totally screws with you, along with herself, in her telling of this story, but she is the most sympathetic and unflinching narrator I’ve met in a while. You will hurt. But not out of Tetley’s malice; out of her honest, brutal love for humanity.
There are so many books out there, for kids and for adults, about the importance of saving this one, precious planet. But I would argue that absolutely no one drives home the genuine importance of this planet and this life better than Tetley, even as she shows us the expendable garbage of our world.
Read this, and yes I do recommend a pre-order from Print in Portland so you can get a signed copy, and then pick up some Sy Montgomery and let the value of every life, everywhere, wash over you.