The Balloon Tree

We’ve talked about Phoebe Gilman before, haven’t we?  We talked about how I loved that she inspired us to do, to jump in and try things out.  Well, one of the best proofs of that I can think of is Phoebe Gilman’s first book, The Balloon Tree.  Already an artist, Phoebe made up a story for her daughter one day, and they liked it so much she wrote it down and illustrated it.  She persisted in the face of multiple rejections, and all of her wonderful books are the result.  She tells the story of how the book came to be in more detail here, along with some other fun tidbits.

The Balloon Tree.jpg

In addition to being a truly wonderful book in its own right, and unfairly good for a first book, The Balloon Tree has particular resonance for me as the book where I finally found the aesthetic which has stayed with me my whole life.  Look at these two pictures.  This is from the book (apologies for the cellphone shot in bad lighting):

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And this is from my ketubah, Jewish marriage certificate, commissioned from the marvellous Laya Crust:

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No influence whatsoever, nope!  And if you see any resemblance to Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry then you’re completely… accurate.

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If you accuse me of just filling this blog post with images I want to stare at for hours, you’re also accurate.  But it’s a funny thing: I had no idea about the Très Riches Heures or of medieval art or of anything to do with art when I was a kid first reading this book with my mother.  And yet, here I am studying 14th- and 15th-century poetry, works from the period (more or less) which would have inspired Phoebe Gilman.  If I wanted, I could probably blame my life’s work so far on her.  I’m responsible for the unfinished dissertation, though.

Now, let’s think a little more about this 14th- or 15th-century influence.  (And, no, I don’t think I’m taking this too seriously.  I’m a freaking academic, people!  Academics never think they’re taking things too seriously.  That’s how we ended up with Middlemarch.)  Excuse my alter-ego; she gets a little worked up.  The point is that there’s the aesthetic from the illustrations and the story itself, and I think it’s fun to look at how they line up.

The story goes like this: Princess Leora, who loves balloons, lives with her father, the king, in a lovely castle in a small, happy kingdom.  Happy, except for her uncle, the grouchy Archduke, whose appearance was drawn from Jan van Eyck’s portrait of Arnolfini:

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When Leora’s father leaves for a tournament in a neighbouring kingdom, he leaves the Archduke in charge, with Leora to help him.  In case of any problems, he tells Leora to release a bunch of balloons from the tower and he’ll see them and come home.  The Archduke imprisons Leora in her chamber and orders all balloons to be popped, but she escapes to the Wizard and has him tell her how to solve the problem: she has to find one whole balloon before the moon fades and plant it in the courtyard while speaking a magic verse.  She does, and the tree starts bearing balloons as the sun rises, thus summoning her father and saving the kingdom.

It’s a charming story, but with echoes of much, much older, darker stories.  I’m warning you again: I’m an academic, and there’s no help for it.  I could talk about how heart-warming the story is.  How brave Leora is, and how great it is to have a strong girl winning the day.  I could talk about how we all love balloons (except for my husband and father) and how fun the balloons are in this book.  And that’s all true.  But I’ve been waiting for years to think about whether the pictures are an overlay on a modern story, or whether there are older resonances to match the pictures, and I think there are.

Let’s start with the imprisonment in the chamber: how common is that?  Very common. If you want the 14th C illustration to go with it, look up Charles d’Orléans as pictured in a manuscript of his own poetry (BL Royal MS 16 F II, f. 73).  If you want a more apt historical comparison, there were fears in England in the 12th century that Prince John would steal the kingdom while Richard Coeur de Lion was imprisoned overseas.  Queen Eleanor, their mother, was kept under house arrest for years.  In my own area of study, Wales, imprisonment of family members was commonplace in family struggles over territory. Usurpation and imprisonment were occupational hazards of being nobility or royalty.

Thus, miraculous escapes from tyrannical rulers become a common aspect of folklore.  There’s the story of Richard’s escape, of course, and then think about the story of King Arthur having all babies slain in an attempt to get rid of the baby who was to be his own downfall, his son Mordred.  We’ve even got a Merlin equivalent in our story!  It’s a gruesome story, and comparing killing babies to the attempt to pop all the balloons seems tasteless, but, well, it came to mind, I’m afraid.  Of course, the Arthur story is just a free retelling of the Massacre of Innocents, which itself has strong overtones of the Egyptians killing all baby boys in Exodus.  These stories always go farther back, somehow.

My point being that I think there are, if you’re willing to way overextend things, hints of historical undertones– even overtones!– to the story as well as the art.  But it’s a fun book, not a serious or scary one.  And that, too, spans both the art and the story, and that’s where we come to the balloons and the kick-ass Leora, and the kids helping kids to save the day.  Any royalty from the 14th century would have killed to have Leora on their side.  No, really, they would have killed, so maybe step back a little.  And get a weapon.  They would probably castrate your husband or send your wife to a convent, too.  They weren’t nice; they wanted to win.  Point being, someone with Leora’s courage and persistence is like the answer to those old historical problem stories’ prayers, and let’s not forget the friends who help her: the Wizard and the little boy in the cottage who sweetly gives up his last balloon to Leora.  It’s a historical story turned into a modern fairy tale with a kick-ass female child heroine saving the day.  And her daddy the king wears glasses, and she has cute bedroom slippers.

Are those just cute details and wish-fulfillment, though?  I don’t think so.  I think this is a story with roots, I really do.  Artistic roots, historical story roots: they give the story depth.  But the real depth is in how they’re used, and that comes from Phoebe Gilman’s own brain and own brush.  The generosity, persistence, and strength of Leora and her father are much more important than the fear the old noble families of Europe lived with.  They provide motivation for Leora to show her mettle, that’s all.  And the beauty?  That’s important, but rubber ducks in a warm family environment are more cuddly, in the end.  Both matter.  Both are important.  But let’s not underestimate the sweetness in the illustrations of the king hugging Leora: after all, the real motivation in the story is family love, and Leora shows us that’s worth preserving.

But the balloons are worth preserving, too.  Kids?  Go get your parents to blow up some balloons.  I’ll get one for my Changeling.

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Ice Cream Summer

I was faced with one of the horrors of life today: a dentist appointment.  Do you hate going to the dentist?  I do.  It’s the poking and the scolding and the predictability of having done something horribly wrong.  Point is: after having endured the tender ministrations of the steel hooks and picks in the hands of the dentist, then the best antidote is frivolous fun.  Which is why today we’re going to be talking about one of my favourite books from last summer, which it’s really time to revisit for this summer: Ice Cream Summer, written and illustrated by Peter Sís.  (I’m linking you to his wonderful website so you can poke around there.  I bought my copy at The Children’s Book Shop in Brookline because they tricked me into it by showing it to me and then I couldn’t let go.  They’re like that there.)

Ice Cream Summer

If I had to think about one word to associate with Ice Cream Summer, it would be “chuckle.”  It’s not a hilarious book, or a silly book, although it has great puns and jokes and a hefty dose of silliness in the pictures.  It’s not a serious book, although it has really interesting history and a little math and cartography.  This is Sís at his best: not walking the line between fact and fun, but merging the two.  He doesn’t need to sweeten his nonfiction with humour.  He just writes the book he needs to write, and thereby shows that fun and fact walk hand in hand.  This isn’t a fiction book, but it’s not a serious nonfiction book, either: it’s just a book.  It’s not a laugh, it’s not a thoughtfully furrowed brow: it’s a chuckle.

How does Peter Sís get this chuckle out of us?  It doesn’t hurt that his topic is ice cream.  It also doesn’t hurt that he’s really, really ready not just to write about ice cream, but to write about the platonic ideal of ice cream which we all know to be out there somewhere: ICE CREAM SUMMER.  Ice cream which I imagine to be cold and refreshing without being so cold as to numb your throat when you slurp it down.  Ice cream with sprinkles and a cherry on top.  Ice cream in all colours, but which somehow emanates a frivolously pink nimbus of frothy delight.  Ice cream in sundaes with velvety sauce and real whipped cream.  This isn’t just ice cream scooped from a tub in your freezer, maybe with crystals: this is the ice cream of your dreams.

How can I tell you that?  Because I looked at the front cover, sighed in delight (with a little smile starting), and then flipped through, chuckled at the pictures, and turned helplessly to the counter to buy the book.  In other words, the illustrations are glorious.  There are teetering towers of ice cream scoops in waffle cones, an ice cream-shaped lamp over an ice cream-shaped bed, a hammock swung between ice cream-shaped trees, and the boy protagonist tucked into a sundae bed for his Sunday rest.  The illustrations are whimsical and play into the jokes in the book (“I always take a break on sundaes”), but are also precise and detailed.  Sís does not jump manically into the swimming pool with ice cream in his hand– he leaves that to his main character.  Sís has careful outlines, refreshingly brushed with watercolours.  They look a little crazy, but much of that is in the content (the ice cream bed and trees, for example) rather than the execution, which is quite classic.

Classic with zany details really cuts to the heart of how this book works.  Take the concept: a boy named Joe is writing to his grandfather to tell him how his summer has gone and how he’s been so good that he really deserves the special trip his grandfather promised him.  He tells his grandfather about the reading he’s doing: “I am conquering big words like tornado and explosion!”  The illustration shows that he’s reading “mango explosion” and “cherry tornado” at an ice cream store.  “I practice my math facts,” Joe continues.  And the illustration shows him carrying ten scoops of ice cream as his dog carries three: “10 Scoops + 3 Scoops = ?” reads the page.  Yet what could be more traditional than a summer letter to a grandparent?  And what letter would be complete without details of camp life?  “Today we learned cartography,” Joe explains.  And shows off the ice cream map he built: Ice Land is in the southwest, while Mango Rocks and Pistachio Cliff are due north.

The longest passage is the exploration of ice cream history, beginning in ancient China.  Did you know that ice cream was invented there 2,000 years ago?  I didn’t.  Thank you, Peter Sís, for educating parents along with children!  Then on we go through Marco Polo and the Silk Road, over to Italy and  Catherine de Medici, who brings ice cream to France.  Joe’s letter states that he’s “researching the whole European continent,” and it’s not wrong.  It becomes clear that to study ice cream history encompasses a whole mass of topics and places, and Peter Sís shows it all concisely and engagingly.  You’d think this passage would be for older children (or adults like me) only, but, oddly, this is the Changeling’s favourite part of the book.  She enjoys pointing out the details in the illustration, and, bit by bit, I tell her what it’s all about.  She loves that.

In the end, as the letter draws to a close, Joe wonders where his grandfather will take him and you turn the page… to see a grandfather decked in ice cream gear and the words: “To the top of Ice Cream Peak?  Wow!  This is the best summer ever!”  And it is evident that the ice creamy adventures will continue.

You’ll have seen that in each aspect I’ve described you see the same perfect synthesis of exuberant fun and interesting tidbits, interesting facts.  Is this an educational book?  Well, you can learn a lot from it, and it even has a list of further reading discreetly tucked in.  But I wouldn’t say it’s sneakily trying to educate you.  I think it’s showing you that learning is fun, picking up facts can be entertaining in its own right, and why not do more of it?  I’ve never liked kids’ books which sneakily try to teach you, and if this were a sugar coating over an attempt at getting some information into your brain I wouldn’t like this book, either.  Manipulation isn’t a good look for books or people.  But this book is just having fun, and has no definite educational agenda it’s trying to push.  If you read it, you will enjoy it, and will happen to learn something, too.  Now, that’s what a good book should do, for children and adults both.

So, after you’ve had a rough day and a rough visit to the dentist, I strongly advise the following program: go to the bookstore and get this book; go to the ice cream parlour or grocery store and procure ice cream; sit down, read book, and consume ice cream.  Forget the dentist for the next six months.  Be happy.

In the Night Kitchen

Last night I woke up with a start.  I couldn’t tell you what woke me (I was dreaming about sharks, so maybe that was it), but I noticed again what I’ve noticed before: waking up in the night feels different.  It’s a bit more permissive, there in the dark.  Have you ever quietly talked in a dark room?  You can confess things: “I actually don’t like cilantro,” you whisper.  (Well, maybe you’d admit to something else, but if you say you don’t like mushrooms I’m afraid we can’t be friends.)  You can believe things in the dark, too: “Someone came knocking at my wee, small door.”  Maybe you even believe you saw a UFO.

But that’s just in the dark.  Maybe you stayed up late.  Maybe you’re drowsing in bed.  What about when you wake up?  You’ve been dreaming, and suddenly– what were you dreaming?  Was that a dolphin or a shark?  Your eyes struggle between open and closed, and finally settle on rising up, with that funny feeling as your eyelashes disentangle.  Is the room light or dark, you wonder as your eyes get used to being open.  And with that you get the distinction between being awake in the night and waking up in the night.  Is it light or dark?  Did that dream make sense?  It had made perfect sense, and it still does make sense, but in the morning it won’t make sense, and probably will have faded away.  When you’re awake at night and a bit drowsy, you might believe you see a UFO.  If you wake up in the night, you’re not entirely sure that you aren’t floating over to the UFO and having an extended conversation with the alien invading force about the difficulties involved in finding a really good teapot.

In the Night Kitchen, written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak, isn’t a story about being awake at night; it’s a story about waking up in the night.  And that’s what I love about it.

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I thought about asking you if you ever heard of Mickey, but stopped myself: a) you have, I’m sure; b) that’s appallingly kitsch and Sendak would have winced.  I’m forcing myself to tell you as penance.  The point is, we all know of Mickey and his wild domestic adventure.  But has it ever occurred to you that the story is simply this?: “One night a boy woke up and helped bake a cake.”  It takes Maurice Sendak to take that story and make it wild, original, almost magical.  (Note: this isn’t the only Sendak story where that happens.  Chicken Soup with Rice takes the world’s most comforting food and turns it into a crazy adventure.  Sendak loves these contrasts.)  This is, in fact, the story the Changeling had to be read every night for several months, but when I recommended it to a friend as a good present for his nephew, he looked it over and refused: “It’s too scary.”

We’re here to consider how this simple story becomes such a wild, possibly frightening, adventure.  What does Maurice Sendak do?  Well, first of all, he probably woke up in the night a few times himself– I’m awfully sorry for his disrupted sleep, but it’s obvious he knew the good side of that disruption: that falling down of barriers and exploding sense of possibilities.  Some people pay a lot of money for terrible substances to get that feeling; others suffer from insomnia.  (In case it’s not clear, I fall in the latter camp, not the former.)  And he gets that sense of exploded barriers across by blasting through all barriers of storytelling.  Let’s consider a few simple aspects.

First, there’s format.  What’s the format for this book?  You in the back?  That’s right!  There’s no clear answer.  Is it a comic book or graphic novel?  (Graphic story, I guess?)  Well, sort of.  Is it a picture book?  Sort of.  It’s really what you get when you peel away the outer layers of each and let the ink from each seep together.  The picture book is still there.  The word balloons and panels are still there.  But it’s sort of a picture book where the pictures speak as much as the words and the words play a powerful part in the pictures and the panel layout really matters.  It’s a merger of formats, where the form powerfully informs the storytelling.  I have never seen a book where the form has done so much, or where the form’s beauty has been so little counteracted by an awkward taste.  (Sorry, I couldn’t help it.  Ten points if you get the reference, and a further ten points if you don’t smack me upside the head for it.  Also, I meant exactly what I said there.)

Let’s take a look inside the book.  As with How to Be a Dog, I’m snapping a few pictures for you because I think it’s important to look at what we’re talking about.  (I would like to thank the Samsung Galaxy S7 for making it possible for me to easily take and upload a not-t00-crappy picture to my blog.)

Here’s one:

Quiet Down There

What do we notice?  Well, it looks nearly conventional until that last panel.  A bar at the top, perhaps bigger than we might be used to from DC or Marvel, gives context, and the picture illustrates what’s happening.  That last panel, though, explodes the barriers– quite literally breaking the space for the last image and overwhelming it with Mickey’s shout.  But what about another one?

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Now, this is interesting.  First, I want to note that the page layout is bigger.  Everything is bigger, somehow, except for a few things which are short and squat (the baking soda) or tall and thin (the orange flower water).  The sense of scale is topsy-turvy with the huge bakers, a huge bowl, a big table with ordinary ingredients underneath, dwarfed by the big spoons.  Mickey, of course, is disappearing in the bowl, one little hand poking up on the right.  There’s something Alice in Wonderland-like about the scale here, and pretty much as disturbing.  And yet there are conventional elements, too: incorporating the text into the table is original, but still works with the traditional structure of balancing text and speech bubbles, which appear on the right in the expected format.

Let’s look at a last page, one of the most famous:

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First, let’s note that the Changeling firmly believes there’s an owl in this picture.  Whoever finds the owl gets a prize.  Onto the in-depth, serious analysis.  First of all, there are no words at all.  The picture here is speaking for itself.  Now, this isn’t totally original (if you want to see my favourite example of a wordless book see Escapade by John S. Goodall), but in this case what I love about it is that we see how our panels have exploded away.  We’ve left behind order, or even the semblance of order.  The bakers are exulting, expectant, waiting on tenterhooks, and Mickey has flown right out of bed, out of the oven, and is soon to abandon even the dough.  Gone, all restrictions are going to be gone, and he’ll be left crowing Cock-a-doodle-doo stark naked except for a measuring cup on his head as he balances on the top of the milk bottle.

This is only something you can think up waking in the night.  No matter how late you stay up, it won’t come to you: you have to burst through onto the other side of sleep to get there.

And it’s all domestic.  All of it.  It’s cozy, comforting, and utterly discombobulating and perverse at the same time.  It’s Maurice Sendak.

Red is Best

It’s cold and rainy and grey today in Cambridge.  I’d hope it’s warmer where you are, except that I know this rain is good for my garden, and maybe your garden needs rain, too.  But nothing apart from my garden wants rain.  I know I don’t.  I look outside and run to put on the kettle, wrap up in covers, and my eyes drowse over.  I want soup and oatmeal and homemade bread, but I don’t want to leave my little cocoon.  So I do the reading equivalent of oatmeal and fresh bread: childhood favourites.  There are so many of them: Matthew and the Midnight Tow TruckFreight Train, and, of course, today’s book for us, one which is quoted almost daily in our house… Red is Best, by Kathy Stinson, illustrated by Robin Baird Lewis.

Red is Best

This is a Canadian classic, and one which is fortuitously available (although not widely known) in the USA.  I link you to Barnes and Noble, for example.  I’d say that this unwonted availability is because the book is so damned good, but that would be insulting to reams of other damned good books.  That said, the book truly is wonderful.  Why?  Well, this morning my daughter was painting– here, want to see her work of artistic genius?

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Isn’t it beautiful?  It’s a peacock for her daddy because she loves him.  (I’m not bragging, why do you say I’m bragging?)  But what I want to point out is that the base is red.  Her first paint choice was red, “Because red is best!”  This didn’t deter her from giving purple and brown their due after the red foundation was completed, naturally, since each of them is her “best of colours” in addition to red, green, blue, and yellow, but red paint had her chanting and dancing and painting.  It got her excited.

Why is this?  Well, first of all, red’s a pretty excellent colour.  Red is bright and glowing and dramatic and beautiful.  I’m a big fan of red.  Red is fire and flowers and hearts and jewels.  Red is dangerous and rich and lovely and warm.  I consider it inherently beautiful and harder to screw up than yellow, for example, which can be a very strong colour in the right hands, or a pasty, weak one in the wrong hands.  Who wants a pasty, weak colour on a day like today?  On a grey day you want warm red alpaca mittens, or red flannel pyjamas, or a snuggly red sweater.  Red warms you up.  So, yes, I may be somewhat predisposed in both the colour and the book’s favour.  That said, green is my best of colours (my snuggly sweaters are green, being honest, not red), so I refuse to own to complete prejudice here.

The real charm in the colour for the Changeling probably comes from the book as much as from the colour itself, however.  I do think red lends itself to the book, that without the brightness and warmth of a perfect, primary colour red the book would have a different character altogether, but the book defines something other than the value of a colour: it legitimizes a child’s preferences.  And, since it says it’s OK to love red best, the Changeling loves both book and colour: they tell her it’s OK to love something best of all.

Wait, I just realized you may not have read the book yet.  My poor reader, why didn’t you tell me earlier?  I forget that some people struggled through deprivation, not having memorized Red is Best at an early age.  Let me tell you all about it, and you can be part of the cool kids’ club.  There’s a girl, Kelly, who loves red.  Her mother doesn’t get it.  Over and over again her mother tries to get Kelly to wear her blue coat because it’s warmer, her white stockings because they match her dress, or paint with orange because there’s not much red left.  Kelly patiently explains that she needs the red ones for many reasons: she can be Red Riding Hood in her red jacket; she jumps higher in her red stockings; and her red paint puts singing in her head.  Whatever the situation, Kelly always has an answer why she needs red, but it’s all summed up in the final declaration, the declaration which is echoed in our house almost daily: “I like red, because red is best.”

I hear you, Kelly.  Even though red isn’t my “best of colours,” I get it, I really do.  In fact, I think we all get it.  I think we’ve all had moments when we loved something so wholly and completely that it didn’t matter if the mittens had holes or the boots weren’t right for the weather or if we’d already poured juice in the other cup.  We wanted those mittens, that pair of boots, or this cup right here.  For adults, I think we sometimes deny ourselves what we want (or argue with our children that they can’t wear the same underwear three days in a row) because we’re very sensible now.  For Kelly, she has the absolute clarity of a three-year-old.  Red is best.  That means the red mittens are best, and why would I wear anything else?

As I don’t need to tell you, it is very, very difficult to argue with a three-year-old’s logic.  This isn’t because they aren’t logical enough; it’s because they’re so absolutely logical.  Why would you wear second-best if first-best is right here?  The question is practically unanswerable.  The adult response is usually to try to prove that the first-best isn’t really so much the best after all.  This doesn’t often go very well.  The child knows what’s best: “I like red, because red is best.”  (What does work for me, all you parents out there, is to explain that the first-best needs a time out for some reason: needs to take a bath so it’s ready for tomorrow, or needs a nap, or whatever I can devise.  The Changeling knows what’s best; that’s unarguable.  But sometimes best needs a break, and she can understand that.  Our daily parenting tip is now finished.  You’re welcome!)

The charm of this book is that it’s reassuring to both parents and child: it validates the child’s views, while sympathizing with the unseen parent’s frustrations.  We’ve all been there: “Why do you need to wear your rain boots?  It’s sunny and warm!  Why do you need to eat only cheese?  We have plenty of other food!”  Oh, we’ve all been there, all of us, whether as parents or as children.  But how often does a kid get told that it’s OK?  Usually they hear amusement or frustration, and parents, even if we deep-down kind of sympathize, feel faced with obstinacy or tears, and we worry about being judged if we do let the kid out in rain boots when it’s too snowy or too sunny.  (I’m totally writing from personal experience right now, yes.)

It’s glorious to be shown reality in a case like this.  Just shown it, no judgment calls at all.  Looking it in the face, I say: “Yes, I’ve been there.  Both as the child and the parent.  And, you know what?  It’s OK.  It’s OK to say yes to the kid.  If need be, it’s OK to say no.  And it’s OK for each of us to feel frustrated.  And it’s OK to laugh.  And it’s OK.  We’re not alone.”

I like this book, because it warms me when I’m cold.  And today I’m going to read it to myself, because I love this book best right now.  And that’s OK!

How to Be a Dog

After such serious and intense writing for the past couple of days, I wanted something a little lighter and sillier to write about.  First I thought about A Castle Full of Cats, but I’ve already done that.  But then I was tidying away the day’s books, and came across one my daughter plucked from the shelves of the Harvard Book Store, How to Be a Dog, written and illustrated by Jo Williamson.  (I am not referring to A Guide to Being a Dog, by Seamus Wheaton, which, yes, I also have.  Apparently the Changeling and I really want a dog.)

How To Be a Dog

This was an interesting find.  It’s a debut book from Jo Williamson, and I consider it absolutely unfair that her first book is so charming and pitched so perfectly, and also I’m now very curious to see everything else she does.  But how did I find it when I’d never heard anything about it before?  Well, my daughter, animal-magnet that she is, ran into the children’s book section, paused, veered to the right, and snatched it from where it was inconspicuously shelved and said, “Let’s bring this book home!”  I swear to God she knew.  I swear she was sniffing when she paused there, that she muttered under her breath: “Dogs.  Today I want dogs.”  And she sniffed out “dogs,” and found the doggiest book she could.  Animal magnet.  This is a kid who once located a pit bull in a closed store and basically befriended the dog, who was wagging her tail enthusiastically, until the owner had to open the door to allow them a brief moment to say hello before we apologized and dragged her away.  It’s a little uncanny, but I’m hopeful her skill will one day get us a dog (don’t tell my husband I said that).

Anyway, the point is that it was love at first sniff, which is more or less how the story starts, with the dog narrator relating how dogs find their humans: they just know who’s right for them and make a beeline for their human.  Then they have to get used to living together.  The narrator goes through a list of tips or guidelines for how to live in your new home: finding your favourite place to sleep; greeting visitors; how not to, ahem, sully the floor; cleaning the floor of any delicious debris.  It ends by promising that even if there are occasional sad moments (such as bath time), dogs just want to be with their best friend, and will be very happy in their new homes with their special human: “Just like me,” says the narrator, and if you don’t break into a smile at that final page then I think that’s cause for medical concern.

Here’s the thing: this is a perfect book for dog-lovers.  I don’t have to justify this book to them– they’ve probably already ordered it as of the first paragraph.  I don’t even have a dog, and I love it, because I know dogs and I love them.  It’s also ammunition for me in communicating to my husband that my daughter clearly needs a dog because she chose the book, right?  Right.  But I’m really curious about how it plays with people who aren’t dog-lovers, whether they’re like my husband (who enjoys dogs but doesn’t need them), or my father (who’s really bizarre and seems to actually dislike them).  My husband does like this book, but I’d like to try it out on my father.  My suspicion is that it would at least garner a chuckle, but I have no evidence to back that up.

Why do I think such a dog-oriented book isn’t just for dog-lovers?  It’s got such perfect timing for its little jokes.  The text is straightforward, for example: “Your human will want you to be toilet trained… Mine was very glad when I got the hang of it.”  (Of course you can expect kids to giggle over that.)  This is all true, of course.  A human would absolutely desire a dog to cease and desist from leaving puddles on the floor.  And the first page indicates this clearly:

Not yet toilet trained

Notice what’s going on there?  It’s the illustration you need to read, right?  Hence why I snapped a couple of pictures, unlike usual: you’ve got to see the book to get the text here.  Jo Williamson’s pencil and watercolour images fill the blanks left by the text.  The text gives you the dog’s point of view; the illustrations show you what’s happening, and your reaction provides the human’s perspective.

Let’s look at the next page:

Toilet trained

Oh, whoops!  Not so typical, eh?  The timing is just right, and has a slightly retro, old-New Yorker feel to it.  The vintage feel is bolstered by the art: the very light, bold touch of the pencils sketching the form, and filled in largely by grey watercolours, highlighted by occasional blue and red details.  Of course, there’s also the old-fashioned toilet which I truly and dearly adore, and then the dog reading a physical newspaper.  Note also boy’s clothing: there’s something of the British schoolboy about him, again a little touch which brings seriousness and humour into relief.

There’s nothing about this book which is inherently funny.  It is told straight, it is illustrated straight.  It doesn’t “make jokes” at you.  It’s Costello, in Abbott and Costello.  You’re Abbott, reading it.  You make it funny, by stumbling from page to page, doing a double-take, then chuckling at what you see.  There’s a sort of dry, twinkle-in-the-eye humour here which I think anyone, dog-lover or not, will love.  I’d also venture to guess that any dog-lover, child or adult, would also love this (if you’re not already a dog-lover, you may need a child to introduce you to the book, though).  There are definitely jokes you need to be of a certain age to get, but pretty much any age should be able to enjoy this, thanks to those lovely, vintage-feel, vivid illustrations.  Oh, just scroll up and look at the pictures, then show them to the nearest child.  They’re an immediate attraction, and I frankly can’t wait to see what Jo Williamson does next.

I’d like to thank my daughter’s sixth sense for pulling this book off the shelf.  It’s been a joy getting to know a book and an author really new to me, and it’s been even more fun making my husband nervous as my daughter and I coo over every dog.  (Can we get a dog?)

Esther’s Story

Today is Purim, and I get to spend the whole day with the Changeling.  One of the laws of Purim is hearing the story of Esther, and, while my daughter isn’t precisely obligated in the laws yet (toddlers tend not to be held accountable for, for example, paying taxes, and Jewish law works the same way), I still thought we’d read one of my favourite versions of the Purim story.  I’m awfully sorry to be giving you an AbeBooks link again, but this book is twenty years old (jeepers, and I bought my copy when it was just released!  I feel old…), so it’s not exactly widely available, although it should be: Esther’s Story, by Diane Wolkstein, illustrated by Juan Wijngaard.

Esther's Story.jpg

Do you remember how I’ve said over and over again of nonfiction books that I love the ones (such as A Bird Is a Bird and Feathers) which take the reader seriously?  I feel the same way about this book.  I’ll point out a few aspects to reinforce that right up front: a) It draws heavily and clearly on the written textual tradition; b) In fact, the whole premise for Esther writing her own story is drawn right from the end of the megillah, the original text of Esther (I’ll come back to that); c) the full-page gouache illustrations are meticulously detailed and drawn from the Persian material culture the book evokes.  Everything about it, in other words, is rooted in the historical and textual background of the story.  And it’s for children.  (OK, granted, it was too old for my daughter, but she still enjoyed it– try it on kindergarten kids and up, I guess?  But remember this post: Ages and Why I don’t mention them often.)

Let’s go back to that bit of text I mentioned from the megillah itself:

Then Queen Esther daughter of Abihail wrote a second letter of Purim for the pupose of confirming with full authority the aforementioned one of Mordecai the Jew. […] These days of Purim shall be observed at their proper time, as Mordecai the Jew– and now Queen Esther– has obligated them to do, and just as they have assumed for themselves and their descendants the obligation of the fasts with their lamentations.  And Esther’s ordinance validating these observances of Purim was recorded in a scroll. (Jewish Study Bible, Esther 9:30, 31-32.)

Diane Wolkstein uses this mention of Esther sending out the letter to motivate her entire story: Mordecai first encourages Esther to write, giving her a diary which she uses to record the early events of the story (yes, a little anachronistic, perhaps).  And, at the end of the whole dramatic story, we see the older Esther recording the final events in her letter to the Jews, and asking them to observe the fast which bears her name, Ta’anit Esther, the Fast of Esther, which immediately precedes the holiday of Purim.  That’s all pretty scholastic, perhaps, and it’s a premise which could be used for a novel as well as for a children’s book (if you were looking for the premise for a good novel: you’re welcome!), but it works remarkably well here.

Let me take a moment here to acknowledge a few things: yes, there are absolutely aspects of the story which are changed.  The book describes women being brought to the palace so the king can choose a wife, for example.  It doesn’t give Harem 101 for schoolchildren.  It doesn’t talk about the young women being brought to the king and the evening and away in the morning.  It doesn’t talk about that sketchy part at the end of the book where “Haman was lying prostrate on the couch on which Esther reclined. ‘Does he mean,’ cried the king, ‘to ravish the queen in my own palace?'” (Esther 7:8).  (It does show Haman tripping and falling in his terror, but not the possibly-probably-implied assault.)  There is a lot of fairly explicit sexuality in this story, and a lot of it exists in a grey-to-bad place, especially coming from our modern perspective.  This is heavily toned down for this book, but not so totally cut out that it’s unrecognizable, and I think Diane Wolkstein does it extremely well.  Kids should be able to read this, grow up, read the original text and say, “Oh, I get it!”

So, what does she do to achieve this balancing act between good storytelling for a child audience and what we might call an evocation of historical authenticity?  First of all, there’s the straightforward telling of a dramatic story in Esther’s own voice.  That does a lot, right there.  Most events come straight from the megillah, some are partly filled out from other sources, but  few are invented.  Personality, reactions?  Those come from the author, but are rooted in how she sees the text.  Thus, we see Esther first as a young, intelligent girl, being raised by her intelligent uncle who sees the direction events are taking.  When he sees Vashti banished, he changes Esther’s name from Hadassah to Esther and asks her to hide her Jewish identity; she wonders, but obeys.  As she gets older, she’s moved to the palace, and we see more and more of her own thoughts and her own growing courage.

I love that amplification: the original story is, as the Bible frequently is, devoid of those strokes of description which give you a sense for what people are feeling.  That’s what modern retellings can provide: good ones reach into the events and say, “how was this working?”  In this case, it went from happy-go-lucky childhood to slight bewilderment and tension at the palace, to an initial exhilaration at her becoming queen, and onto sudden seriousness when faced with a truly terrible situation.  No teenager, and if you care to do the math in the book Esther is probably around 16 or 17, should be tasked with facing sudden painful death on the one hand, or the extinction of her people (and, presumably, eventually herself) on the other.  It’s kind of a nasty place to be, she writes employing litotes, and, by focusing in on Esther’s reactions and feelings, Diane Wolkstein is able to make it believable and allow us to relive the story rather than wonder, “Poor lamb, how on earth did she feel about that?”  Obviously this is particularly good for children, who otherwise can’t quite amplify lines such as, “If I perish, I perish,” for themselves, but who are all too often faced with stories and plays which reduce it to a farce or some other form of pablum.  (Yes, I speak feelingly– dear God, I’ve seen some awful puppet shows of the Esther story!)

Naturally, a book like this wouldn’t work without good illustrations, and in this case Juan Wijngaard does phenomenal work.  Some of these pictures are good enough to frame, honestly.  His paintings, done in gouache, focus particularly on the material world of Persia, which ably draws out the material wealth which is the focus of the text, thereby juxtaposing the ease of life with life itself, so tenuous and ephemeral in the hands of unscrupulously powerful men.  If I had to say one word which jumps out of those illustrations, it’s “textiles.”  You feel that you could reach in and stroke the cloth, feel the stiffness of rich embroidery, the supple silks, the soft carpets.  As Esther fasts, anticipating the death that awaits her as she enters the king’s chamber the next day, Juan Wijngaard shows her lying on her rich carpet, her soft bed rumpled beside her (presumably she’s passing a restless, sleepless night) fingers twined, face sweaty, reading a book propped up on a soft cushion.  The sun rises, peeking through her carved shutter.  The whole story is apparent in that one image: “I’m going to die, one way or another, tomorrow.  And here I am, in my rich room… yet I’m going to die.  I am queen… I’m going to die.”  You couldn’t have a better artist for this book.

As I said, the Changeling’s really a bit young for this, but not all that young.  I think next year she’ll be able to grasp it a little better, and the year after that, even better.  I think it’s a wonderful book to grow up with– and I hope that I’ll be watching some parallel development as she watches Esther grow and develop from a young, intelligent girl to a strong, courageous woman.

The Marvels

Sometimes I get this feeling with a book, right from when I see the cover, that it’s somehow saying, “Pick me up.  Pick me up.  We’re going to go places together.”  I got that with The Fox and the Star and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.  The Marvels, written and stunningly illustrated by Brian Selznick (that link has some great resources), is one of those books.

Marvels.jpg

I first saw it while I was chasing my daughter around the Children’s Book Shop on a trip, trying to convince her to put down something or other.  I stopped dead at that beautiful blue-and-gold cover.  Look at it.  Now imagine it in real life, with a deeper blue and the texture of embossed gold.  Scholastic went all out with this one, giving it a beautiful feel: it’s not the Folio Society, but it feels like it wanted to hint at what the Folio Society might do.  I’m a sucker for beautiful books.  I picked it up, but the price tag was a bit too high for something bought on impulse while I was trying to keep the Changeling from destroying a store full of books, and since it’s a book for young adults and older I couldn’t hand it to her, so I put it back.  Later, I gushed about how pretty it looked to my husband, who promptly bought it for my birthday.  Yes, he’s wonderful, and he’s my husband, and you can’t have him (unless you’ve got some really good Folio Society books on offer).

It turns out judging a book by its cover is, in this case, an excellent way to go.  Beauty and mystery are what it projects, and beauty and mystery are what you get.  “What are these marvels I’m being promised?” you whisper as you open the book.  “What’s that ship?  Wait, are those illustrations?”  You quickly glance at a few, then go back to the beginning and look more carefully– the illustrations are telling you a story.  You slow down.  “Good grief, look at these pencils, look at the depth and detail!”  How old they look, you think, they really evoke that 18th/19th C period in which the book is obviously set.  You follow the story until you reach the crisis, flip the page and– you see print.  “But,” you reason, “maybe he’s going to continue the story that way.”  You’ll miss the pictures, though.  And then you read, and, “What on earth is going on here?  Where are the characters I knew and loved?  Who is this?  Why are we in the 20th C?”

All of these and more are questions I will not be answering.  I wouldn’t even answer them for my husband (who nearly snatched the book away while I was reading it, the rat, but I got him to wait and he gobbled it up right after).  I definitely won’t ruin the experience for you, my darling devoted reader.  Now, I’m not normally one to complain about “spoilers.”  I seek out spoilers.  I desire them.  I will regularly read the end of a book before the beginning so I won’t have to be tormented by questions and can instead focus on construction and style.  That works beautifully for Dickens, for example.  It doesn’t work for puzzles and mazes, though, and this book is both a puzzle and a maze.  You have to follow it from step to step or it doesn’t work.  You need to ask these questions: “What are the marvels?  Where did the pictures go?  Where’s the magic?  What are the answers to my questions?”  The book draws these questions from you.  It’s not a thriller, and it’s not teasing: it draws those questions out seriously, deliberately.  It whispers: “Trust me: it will come clear.”  And it does, I promise.  The 672 pages aren’t even a long read, believe it or not, since the pictures occupy a lot of space and tell so much so quickly.

“Great,” you ask me, and I can hear the dry tone in your voice, just so you know, “So what can you tell me about this book, then, apart from the fact that it’s a pretty puzzle?”  Well, I’m glad you asked.  First of all, aren’t you glad to know even so much?  That’s enough to get me to pick up a book.  Second, I want to tell you about the effect of the book, the impact on the reader: in sum, the experience of reading it.  I gave you a hint of that above when I gave you the chronological list of reactions I had when I read it myself, but we can do more than that, don’t worry.

I mentioned beauty about a thousand times so far.  Let’s talk a bit about beauty.  Do you like beautiful things?   Beautiful worlds?  Do you care that the book itself is beautiful?  Then, frankly, stop reading this and go get the book, because the book is for you and I don’t know why you’re waiting (unless you’re trying to corral an excitable toddler– I totally get that).  But while you’re off at the library or bookstore, I’m going to keep writing.  Don’t let me keep you.

From the very first illustrations, this book is telling you about beauty as an immersive experience: that’s why I can’t tell you more about the book’s story, in fact– it demands total immersion and wouldn’t make sense at second hand.  But I’ll try to get across a bit of the first few pages: first, you see a ship in the distance, and as you get closer you see that she’s called Kraken, and a child, a girl, is tied to the mast, trapped.  A dragon approaches and the child’s eyes grow wide, her mouth parts, terrified.  A dog leaps at the dragon from below, and then you see her eyes soften– an angel, sword in one hand and lantern in the other, is descending to save her.  Then, on the next page, you see the playbill and the audience of sailors on the ship.

The child’s total immersion in the play, the complete and willing suspension of disbelief of the child actor, pulls you along.  You, too, believe everything, and maybe feel a bit let down, just for a page, when you realize it’s a play, that the marvels are somewhere on another page.  But then curiosity takes hold, and you move along further and further: the play was very beautiful, the dragon was remarkable, and you do love ships– what’s next?  Oh no!  A shipwreck!  But then… and you’re swept along, swept up with the beauty of each drawing, of the characters’ faces, lovingly rendered in those shaded pencils (the affection Selznick has for his characters is palpable), swept up by the courage and beauty of the story.  Until, moving away from ships and theatres, you end up in modern London, and a whole different style of beauty.  Now you have the beauty of verbal descriptions rather than illustrations, but also another type of beauty, and this is perhaps the most essential to the book: the beauty of merging words and illustrations.  How do the two parts of the books fit together?  Can they be reconciled, or will it remain forever a mystery?  And you read on, eagerly threading the two together, running into dead ends, and finally, your heart breaking with the beauty of the story, you see how they do fit together.  And when you do, you realize that it’s not about magic and marvels, it’s about something deeper: love and beauty, and love of beauty.  Without love of beauty, the worlds can’t be reconciled, and no one will come out satisfied, and unless you love beauty, too, you can’t be reconciled to the story, either.  But, if you’ve gotten so far in the book, it will have persuaded you to love beauty, and you will come away feeling rather exalted by the story and the images.

I hope you’re not here reading these words– I hope you’re already out at the library or the bookstore, experiencing them instead.  But I can tell you this: I’ve already marked this out as one of those books for my Changeling when she’s older.  In the meantime, I’ll keep it to hand, and make frequent stops by the Marvels myself, I think.

Each Peach Pear Plum

“Oh, immortal classic!” exclaimed an English professor of my acquaintance when I mentioned Each Peach Pear Plum, that perfect concoction of flaky, tender crust written by Allan Ahlberg, with a luscious plum filling drawn by Janet Ahlberg.

Each Peach Pear Plum

I don’t even remember how my copy arrived in our house.  Probably from my favourite children’s book shop, but, let’s be honest, it could just as easily have grown up as naturally as those little sheep sprouted in the lower left corner of the cover.  Some books just show up and always seem to have been there.  “Oh, immortal classic!”  Indeed.

I was reminded of how naturally this book just merges into our lives when visiting my cousin and her son this weekend.  I think we were the ones to give them Each Peach Pear Plum— unless, of course, it just sprang up in the house one day.  I can claim no credit.  Either way, her son is now a year old and has already loved the book deeply for a few months.  I remember it was the same way with my Changeling.  It was the same way with my niece, too.  My daughter and niece continue to love it, and my niece would call for “Pehpum” regularly at around 18 months.  And nary a one of us is bothered by multiple readings; we are all happy to read it once or twenty times.

Here’s what I’ve spent an awfully long time trying to understand: I absolutely get why we love the book.  Cinderella and the three bears and the wicked witch?  It’s such a fun and clever story about all of our favourite stories!  All of those stories our children definitely didn’t know before a year old!  And yet– they genuinely preferred this book to many others ostensibly aimed at their age group.  We were all really glad to have the book in board book form because it was cuddled and flipped through by clumsy baby hands.  I get why the Changeling, a great lover of Cinderella and Jack and Jill, enjoys the book now: she loves finding her favourite characters.  But let’s think for a minute about why this book might be so appealing to even the tiniest of humans.

You know, here’s where I wish I could let you into my head: I want to share some of my cross-referencing with you.  Remember when I talked about Cat Valente before?  Her Fairyland series and Six-Gun Snow White?  I believe I gently intimated that you should drop everything and read them.  She has a passage in The Boy Who Lost Fairyland about changelings and how they recognize certain patterns, certain stories, look for certain quests.  If you’d read that, you’d connect it with watching that earliest process of book-love as much as I do.  I don’t want to go into it too much here because I do still plan to talk about Fairyland at another point, but, without wanting to sound too much like a crazy romantic, I found myself nodding as I thought about how there were certain books which seemed to have an immediate attraction for my daughter.  Each Peach Pear Plum was one of these.  And, yes, yes, sure, we were going to read it anyway– if you want to be cold and logical and suggest that we indoctrinated her you can go ahead and think that.  Make your grocery list at the same time.  But I do think there was an attraction, a recognition of “this is for me!” there.  Don’t you get that with certain books?  Then why shouldn’t a child?  The question I want to think about is what creates that attraction, and what is it in Each Peach Pear Plum that makes such a strong attraction for so many children?

All right, let’s start with the easy answer: that luscious plum filling Janet Ahlberg provided by way of illustrations.  Aren’t they glorious?  On the one hand, they’re so accessible: simple lines, teddy-bear figures for the three bears, clean round faces.  On the other hand, they’re so rich in detail: just look at those climbing tendrils all over the cover!  If William Morris had decided to draw a children’s book, it might have looked like that cover.  Such a clear, regular pattern, so full of detail, but with strong lines and bright colours.  Everything about it declares that those pictures are for children, but there’s a lot to look at without being too cluttered.

And what do the children notice from the first?  The animals.  As soon as she could talk, my daughter would climb on my lap and flip through, page by page, describing every single animal along the way: dog, sheep, cat, birds, frog… every single animal.  (I didn’t mind because, well, I do love animals, and, also, there was so much else to look at along the way.)  There are animals everywhere, and they look so cuddly on the page.  Of course the tiniest children would love them.

But I think, rich and satisfying as the plum pictures are for children, they wouldn’t be so attractive without that flaky and tender crust supporting them: the words.  “Each Peach Pear Plum/ I spy Tom Thumb!”  Oh, I know there’s no exclamation point in the book, but just you try reading it without an exclamatory ending.  Did you try?  Did you succeed?  Probably not.  If you did succeed, you can go back to your grocery list, and don’t forget the dish detergent.  It bounces along, stressed syllables all in a row like Mary’s pretty maids in the nursery rhyme, and you need a triumphal ending.

Here’s what I noticed really early on, though: that next page?  “Tom Thumb in the cupboard/ I spy Mother Hubbard”?  Kids get the “Tom Thumb” link.  They really do, from a very early age.  I won’t tell you how early I think it goes, because I have no evidence and the children can’t tell me, but I’d be very unsurprised to find out it went earlier than most of us might suspect.  I’m not saying they understand the links, but they can definitely hear and recognize it: they get it, to a degree.  They get the picture links.  They get that the characters they see and hear about early on all come together at the end.  That’s exciting, like a first puzzle, or a little maze they solved.  I think they love following the characters’ quest to that plum pie– that’s what I think.  I think it’s their first introduction to fairy tales through the very best medium for fairy tales: the hunt, the search, the quest!

No wonder our little changelings thrill in recognition to this book.  It delineates their own process in life: first we live, and then we strive.  In this case, we strive, we quest, for plum pie.  I wonder what our kids will strive for?

The Snowy Day

Yes, I know we’ve only just talked about Ezra Jack Keats, but today we woke up to the last snow of winter and the first of spring, and I thought, well, this is my last chance to talk about this book this year.  Let’s go for it.  Also, who doesn’t like talking about Keats?  So, here we are: The Snowy Day (you can find lots of good activities and resources at that link).

The Snowy Day

When we talked about Peter’s Chair, my main point was that Keats leaves a lot up to the reader: in the interest of honesty, he leaves a lot of feelings and connections for readers to investigate on their own, putting the power in their hands.  This is wonderful for younger readers, of course, who all too often have motivations and feelings explained to them in painstaking precision.  Keats leaves it to them to sort out feelings on their own, while giving them the openings to do so in a particularly useful context.

The Snowy Day shares all of these excellent qualities, but the emphasis of the book is, I think, on something a little different and a little more simple: the context.  The whole layout and premise of the book is so simple, so lovely, so perfect, in fact, that I almost have nothing to say apart from “just look at it,” but I’m me, so I never quite have nothing to say.  I’m so sorry about that: I will never have nothing to say about children’s books.

And yet Ezra Jack Keats’s genius is in what he doesn’t say, isn’t it?  He doesn’t tell us, for example, that Peter is excited to see the snow.  That he’s fascinated by the shapes his feet make in the fresh snow on the sidewalk.  That he’s a little surprised by the snow falling on his head when he hits the tree with his stick.  He doesn’t say that Peter’s a bit disappointed he can’t join the older boys in the snowball fight.  Or that his games with the snowman and snow angel were fun compensation for that disappointment.  He doesn’t tell us that the snowball melted in Peter’s pocket, or that his dream reflected his sorrow and worry at the snowball’s disappearance.  He doesn’t tell us that Peter was jubilant when he found that snow was falling after all.

He doesn’t tell us any of that.  The only feeling of Peter’s he tells us is that he is very sad when his snowball is gone.  (And, of course, not telling anything else about his feelings gives particular force to that moment.)  That’s a lot not to tell.  But we know it anyway.  How?

Context, context, context.  Context everywhere– and, by way of conveying that context, some of the most glorious children’s book illustrations known to mankind.  How many children, I wonder, have coveted that red snowsuit with the peaked hood?  I know I did, and I know my Changeling has asked for it.  I’d wager we’re not the only ones.  Vivid details like that bring Peter’s world so perfectly to life that, as I said when writing of Peter’s Chair, we feel like we can walk right through the page and feel quite at home in Peter’s world.  In Instructions, by contrast, there are rules you’d need to learn, dangers to avoid– in The Snowy Day, you’d simply join Peter on his snowy walk, admire your footprints in the snow, and relax in a warm tub of water at the end of the day.  There’s no detail left unexplored, and never so much detail that you can’t leave your own mental imprint on the book.

It should be boring, this abundance of minute detail.  By rights, we should all be begging for sweet release as we look at a kid walking down a snowy sidewalk.  Oh, wow, right?  But we’re not, because we’re with Peter.  We see everything as he sees it: once again, Keats is providing us with a very precise context.  In this case, we have Peter’s eyes and Peter’s mind as he walks down the street, and we find him a completely sympathetic perspective on winter.  When we read as children we think, “Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like,” or, “Now I really want to make a snow angel!” or, of course, “I want that red snowsuit.”  (Someone tell me: why has no one produced this red snowsuit?)  Reading as adults, we wistfully relive those days, and shovelling doesn’t seem so very arduous as we envision that little red peaked hood. (OK, I admit: I still want it.)

In other words, we get to borrow the complete experience, not just watch it.  Instead of being boring, the details are all so very personal, so very human, that they almost feel 3D.  It’s odd, because the illustrations are all on the cusp of flatness: they aren’t quite flat, since Keats uses lovely shading for the snow, for example, but they don’t anywhere near approach the perfect artistic realism of A Bird Is a Bird, or the lush romantic precision of Instructions.  There are large blocks of flat colour here, and they should, again, feel boring.  They should feel unrealistic and blah.  Except that they don’t: they give us just enough to know what we’re seeing without being distracted by foofaws and trills (much as I adore foofaws and trills, mind you).  And this is where I get to the point where, as I said above, I feel like saying, “Oh, just go read the book and you’ll see!”  But that’s not my job: my job is to explore the experience of reading, and why it’s so beautiful.  And so.

The experience goes something like this: You open the book, and see a child looking out his window.  You’re right behind him, catching the curve of his cheek and the excitement in his parted lips, so your eyes follow his to the snow.  I always feel like he’s just gasped, or perhaps murmured, “Oh, wow, snow!”  From that moment, you’re synthesizing that excitement with the description of where he’s going next.  His arms are slightly outflung, his legs apart (you see from the picture), as he leaves the house and sees the snow piled up very high (as the words tell us): the picture shows mild amazement, the words tell us exactly what he’s looking at.  We feel sympathy with him: how very high the snow must seem to a little boy!  And we feel that sturdy stance: in order to make tracks through snow you do have to fling out your arms and part your legs to maintain balance, don’t you, especially when you’re little?  And so you go, throughout the book, merging words and pictures.

It’s all in the details.  It’s all in the context.  It’s all in the precision, here.  What Keats gives you is so carefully chosen, and yet he never gives you too much extra: just enough for realism, just enough to focus your attention on what matters– and always giving you those nice blank spaces to write your own experience.  He gives you two dimensions on paper so that your reading can build the third dimension, inviting you in through the folds in the book’s binding.

That’s where I’ll be going this afternoon with my Changeling; I promised to read it to her when she got back from daycare.  Maybe you’ll join us?

Instructions

Have you ever noticed that one of the best and worst parts of coming back from a trip is the mail?  On the one hand, damn, there can be a lot– and a lot of recycling.  Sifting through the chaff to get to the good stuff can be a drag.  But on the other hand, sometimes the good stuff can be so good.  What I’m saying, yes, is that I got some of those books that you can pry out of my cold, dead hands when we came back from South Carolina.  No, not just that: you can fight past the ramparts of the fortress I will have erected to preserve my personalized, signed copy of Instructions, written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Charles Vess.  DSC_0659.JPG

Wait, you care more about the front cover than to see the personalized signature that is mine and belongs to me and did I mention it’s mine?  Well, I get that, because Charles Vess’s art on that front cover is glorious.

Instructions

Good grief, isn’t that lovely?  You probably want to reach right in and open the book.  If you don’t already have a copy, though, you’re out of luck, except that that Harper Kids put together a beautiful trailer for this book.  I’m going to help you out here: do not run a search for “Instructions trailer.”  The results you get will not be friendly to someone in search of a piece of children’s literature.  I made that mistake so that you don’t have to– you’re welcome!  Instead, here’s what you’re looking for:

I hope you watched that.  Neil Gaiman reads it aloud beautifully, and you should get a good sense of what’s going on with both the art and the text.

And what is going on?  Why did I feel the need to write to the staff at the Jean Cocteau Cinema and beg them to beg Neil Gaiman not just to sign a copy of Instructions to me, but to please, please personalize it because it would make my life just a little more complete?  (And they did ask him, because they’re lovely people, and he did it, because he’s lovely.  Thank you, Jean Cocteau Cinema and Neil Gaiman!)  I would say that to me this poem provides the distilled essence of everything I love about fairy tales, and synthesizes it with my daily life via the one thing common life and fairy tale adventure truly have in common: instructions.

When you’re a child, the first thing your parents really try to teach you is obedience: “Yes,” “No,” “Eat this,” “Don’t touch that,” “Come here,” “Sit down.”  Even the most loving parents, even the ones most invested in giving their child a sense of autonomy and authority over their own body and their own lives, or even the most indulgent parent– well, I challenge you to find me even one parent raising their child without saying at least that common list of instructions.  We all hear instructions growing up, all of us.  We learn obedience to instructions, and we learn rebellion against instructions, and we learn to question instructions, and we learn, as Neil Gaiman wrote in my book which is right beside me right now, “follow instructions.”  Well, fairy tales do the same thing.  Find the Fountain of Life, but when you get there, don’t use the golden dipper: you must use the old tin dipper full of holes instead.  Don’t let the peddler into the house.  Keep to your midnight curfew.

In common life, we see consequences as we grow up: If you touch the hot stove, you’ll burn your fingers; If you don’t come here, you may be picked up wriggling and screaming and be plopped in your crib for time out; If you don’t sit down, you may fall off your chair and catch a nasty bang on your thigh, poor thing.  In fairy tales, disobeying instructions often makes the action happen: It’s only the third son who has the sense to obey instructions and pick up the tin dipper; Only when Snow White lets in the peddler does the prince find her; Breaking the midnight curfew brings the prince after Cinderella.  A broken instruction leads to trouble, and to excitement.

So much for the instructions we’re given, but what about the instructions we learn ourselves?  You know the ones: You’re told not to touch, but you learn what you can touch, and when, and where to hide with your stolen chocolate.  You also learn who to share it with, adding a hug to the chocolate if they’ve been hurt after falling off that chair.  These are the ones Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess truly bring to life.  You’ve probably broken an instruction.  You’re probably on your journey of excitement, perhaps your quest.  What are the rules now?  What are the instructions we really need to know?

We start with the rule which we probably broke:

Touch the wooden gate in the wall you never saw before,

Say “please” before you open the latch,

go through,

walk down the path.

This is a brilliant opening.  Touching that wooden gate is probably breaking a rule somewhere– it would be much more sensible to stay quietly at home, don’t you know?– but it’s how you start your journey.  Saying “please” is important: politeness is important, perhaps even more so in fairy tales than common life.  Then you have to go, you have to take your path– you have to start your journey, my friend, and see it through until the end.

This is a sampling of the types of instructions you’ll find in the book.  There are real fairy tale instructions, such as: “Eat nothing,” since we all know what happens if you eat, Persephone and Eve.  But, on the other hand:

However,

if any creature tells you that it hungers,

feed it.

If it tells you that it is dirty,

clean it.

If it cries to you that it hurts,

if you can,

ease its pain.

Which is only an instruction you can learn by experience– and yet is one of the most important and classic taught by fairy tales: Stamp out the fire to save the ant, and it will bring the last seed; Feed the wolf and the bear, and they will come to your aid.  And yet, is it just a fairy tale instruction?  Don’t we all learn this in life– or learn to harden our hearts to what we know to be true?  Isn’t this how we learn to distinguish the hero from the villain in story and in life, basically?  In this case, Charles Vess shows us in his illustration, one of the most sensitive and lovely in the book, that our fellow on the journey heals the cat, and the cat becomes a faithful companion.

Which brings me to Charles Vess.  Do you remember when I talked about Stardust a while ago?  I believe I mention him as being one of my favourite authors working today.  His style is wholly different from Coralie Bickford-Smith‘s beautiful William Morris-esque work, another of my favourites.  While her work is very structured, very formal and patterned in the Arts and Crafts style, Vess’s is romantic, very organic, soft and lush in texture.  There are little surprises waiting for you: “eyes peer from the undergrowth,” says Gaiman, and Vess makes sure they do, on many a page.  You can feel the folds of the traveller’s clothes,  the warmth and coldness around the twelve months’ campfire, and the wind ruffling the animals’ fur as they ride on the back of the wise eagle.  Just as the words of the poem encapsulate the lessons of every fairy tale you’ve read, the illustrations are packed with references, both in subject and in texture and feel.  I can’t think of a better choice of illustrator for this particular book, not even Arthur Rackham could have done it as well, and I can’t say better than that.  (Have we talked about my crush on Arthur Rackham?  We’ll get there.)

There’s something I particularly love about reading this book with the Changeling.  To her it’s all new, but to me it’s all old.  She hasn’t yet read all of the fairy tales which are distilled in this poem, in these images, but I grew up with them.  She is reading first what I read last.  I’ve written before about how I love experiencing things together with her for the first time; this is a case of having precisely different experiences together with her, but each is beautiful.  She gets the freshness, the mystery of a journey as yet unexplored.  I get the sense of a journey in progress: I’ve read those stories, and now I’m following my own journey.  I love the thought of reading it together when I’m approaching the end of my journey, she is on her journey, and perhaps she’ll have a child beginning her journey.

And so I think we’ve come to the end our journey here.  We’ve followed instructions: we talked about instructions you’re given and instructions you learn to follow.  We talked about how they are true, not in common life or in fairy tales, but in common life and fairy tales; how, in effect, this poem unites the two.  And we’ve seen how they play out, in colour and texture, in Charles Vess’s illustrations.  So I’ll leave you with Neil Gaiman’s most famous instructions, and his last instructions:

Trust dreams.

Trust your heart,

and trust your story.

Once you have?

And then go home.

Or make a home.

Or rest.

And from me?  Take that journey, and always follow the instructions you’ve learned, the ones you know to be true, while you’re on your journey.