I’m posting ever so slightly later in the day than is my wont, but I won’t apologize. Why am I a bit later? Because this morning, after dropping the Changeling off at daycare (excuse me, at “work”), I went to the seat of all that is happiest in life: The Children’s Book Shop. That’s why I won’t apologize (except to the Changeling, who will be furious I went without her); I was off getting supplies to make you a better blog, a happier blog, a blog which purrs contentedly as you sit on your cushion and sew a fine seam and feed upon strawberries, sugar, and cream. There are lots of places to go for supplies (the library, of course, being bread and milk for our darling blog), but every once in a while a blog needs those strawberries, sugar, and cream. For that, there’s none compare to the Children’s Book Shop. I feel a happiness and lightness in my spirit, and you’re going to love what we’ve got for you.
First things first, dear readers: I want to tell you a story of a good bookstore and why people should shop there. When I walked into the bookstore today, I said, “Hi, I need new books.” I named a few good publishers (Chronicle, Candlewick), but mostly said I wanted interesting things fresh off the press– I have a lot of classics, but I need something new. Then I stood there while they trotted around saying things like, “Oh, there’s this one– and do you think she’d like…?” Books rained down upon me and I chuckled and thought and sighed as I flipped through beautiful book after beautiful book. That’s a good bookstore! That’s food for the brain and inspiration for the soul! And that’s why today feels a bit celebratory and revolutionary around here.
For example, I normally don’t post about picture books without first reading them with my daughter and having a good think or two first, but I read this at the bookstore and had such a good laugh that I couldn’t resist sharing it with you right away. I’m sure the Changeling will forgive me when she sees what I brought home. The book is called Swap! written and illustrated by Steve Light.
Folks, this is a swashbuckling, chuckling, clever ride of a book. It’s sheer fun, but with a puzzle-like twist from page to page, and a thoughtfulness to match. The question the book asks is: “What do you do if you seem to have nothing, but want something very much?” The answer is: “Are you really, really sure you have nothing? Search again… and then? Let’s SWAP!”
First, let’s talk a bit about the story to this book. There’s a sad sailor whose ship is old and decrepit. His feisty young friend picks up a button which fell from the sailor’s outfit and says, “Let’s SWAP!” And they set about swapping for all they’re worth: the button becomes two tea cups which become three coils of rope, two of which become six oars, then two oars become four flags… and on they swap until the ship is fully kitted out and the friends are ready to set sail on their new ship, happy again. Ahoy!
Did that sound boring? My apologies– blame me, because it’s not: that’s where two other factors come in, one of which I’ve already raised. First, there’s the puzzle feeling. You may have already sensed this from my retelling. You figure out pretty early on that the friends are gathering ship-related things, and you can also be reasonably sure that, being a picture book aimed at children, they are unlikely to fail in this mission. A tragic demise by falling timbers is probably not going to traumatize the sad friend even further, since it would probably also traumatize the intended audience. So we’re left in a state of moderate suspense: “What next? Will they get anchors? Won’t they need– ah, yes! But why three anchors? Do they need three? Oh! Another swap! And then they get sails!” So, you see, there’s a constant question in mind: “What else will they need, and how will they get it?” It never, ever feels dull, because you just don’t know where their ingenuity is going to take them next.
The other factor is the art. Steve Light works mostly in pen and ink: lively, bold pictures of sailors and dockyards, mermaids and towns, birds and figureheads. Each page is punctuated, however, by ink and gouache colours: perhaps for the oars, or someone’s outfit, or the ocean, or just a bird’s beak. This lightly teasing approach, the lively continuity of the illustrations, along with the mischievous use of colour, precisely parallels the continuity of the narrative punctuated by unexpected swaps (I didn’t expect those glorious hats!), or the ultimate use of the swaps (A flag becomes a blacksmith’s tunic? How clever!). In fact, it’s the very simplicity of the narrative which allows for the unexpected to come through, and so it becomes a course of bubbling fun: “What’s next? How will they make it work?”
That, of course, being the unspoken message of the book: “Persist, young friends! There’s a way, if ye can but trim your sails and follow the true course!” (Forgive me, I couldn’t resist.) “Unspoken” being the operative word here; there’s nothing I loathe more than preachy books. A book should open you up, give you an epiphany, a new way of seeing the world, and that’s what this one does: “Hey– if I have something he wants and he has something I want… we can swap! And then we’ll both be happier!” That’s a little epiphany right there, and the persistence that goes with it should be another one. “Don’t give up,” the book whispers, “there will be a way.” And it whispers lightly, engagingly, and we go happily along for the trip.
There’s one thing that concerns me with a book like this: it’s the work that must have gone in. I see a light, funny, simple book like this and think, “Holy crap, that must have been a lot of work to make it seem so smooth and light!” Those detailed pen and ink drawings, the choice of colour and where to colour, and, of course, the simple, effervescent feel of the words… that must have been hard to accomplish, and yet may not be evident in the outcome, so I want to give an extra flourish of my plumed hat as I bow to Steve Light.
I can’t wait to read this one with my daughter. I predict that it will be a favourite of hers as well as of mine, and I thank the Children’s Book Shop for seeing to it that I got it!