The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

It feels like an awfully long time since we’ve had a regular book chat, doesn’t it?  And yet it’s only a week!  But what a week: a week marked for me by some major family events (my husband defended his dissertation), by starting off my Monthly Newsletter (as fun as I thought it would be), and by the arrival of my Horn Book Magazine subscription for March/April and May/June.  I love browsing those magazines.  It’s like roaming through the bookstore, but you can do it in your pyjamas and you have a friend to chat with about the books all the time.

This time, though, what struck me was the article “Escaping Series Mania” by Betty Carter in the March/April edition.  Betty Carter tells us that the primary school students who attend her school library are bright kids, and passionate about novel series, and she argues that they would benefit from greater exposure to a variety of picture books.  (I painfully constrict her lovely article there– apologies.)  I was surprised to read this because I remember clearly that, for me, picture books were a highlight of my life through… oh.  Wait.  The present day, I suppose?  Point being, I read them voraciously in Grades 1-3, which are the years she’s talking about.

And so I thought to myself that, for the next few weeks, at least, instead of taking it for granted that everyone is going to see the benefit in reading these picture books with an older audience, why not try making it a bit more explicit?  Let’s ask questions like: How would an older child see these books?  How would they benefit from it?  What’s at stake for an 8-year-old as opposed to a 2-year-old or the parent to that toddler?

And what better book to start with than a book I truly consider an “All Ages” sort of book, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, by William Joyce and Joe Bluhm.

Fantastic Flying Books

One of the remarkable things about this book is that it’s actually based on a video, which you can and should watch here.   Seriously, folks.  Watch that movie.  It will give you back way more than the 15 minutes of your life you spend watching it, I promise.

How do you make a picture book out of a 15-minute short, though?  And what does it mean for the book when you do that?  What excellent questions you ask, and how I wish I could answer them adequately!  The honest truth is that I don’t know much about making a movie, but I do know something about picture books.  And the main aspect this book gains from the movie is animation.  The movie, of course, has action.  The book, of course, is printed on paper.  It can’t move.  Movies move, books don’t.  This is basic stuff.

But… do books really not move?  Hell, I’ve quoted Milton before, and I’ll do it again: “For books are not absolutely dead things,” he says in Areopagitica.  Books are inanimate, but they, well, they are animate.  They animate us.  In this case, though, there’s a more literal type of motion going on: no, the book isn’t animate, I’m sorry, but it does give the sense of animation.  It conveys that impression, the impression of vigour and jumping and motion from page to page.  Books fly, buildings crash, and Morris falls through a book in a torrent of letters gleefully spurting up from the page.  You can hardly believe the book isn’t growing and churning and spinning under your hands.

But what of the plot?  Well, here’s where we get to the question of age, and what different ages might gain from it.  OK, wait: May I remind you, right here and now, of my relationship to talking about ages?  Ages and Why I don’t mention them often.  Thank you.  That disclaimer aside, though, I think I can tell you one key thing about this book and the different ages of children and adults who will read it:  We’ll see it differently.

“Great, Deb,” you say drily.  “Care to tell us that water is wet?”

Patience, dear reader.  Give me a chance to explain.  What I mean here isn’t that, well, in Peter Rabbit a child sees a story about Peter running away from Mr. McGregor and getting home safe to Mrs. Rabbit.  An adult can see a bit more– Peter would have died, for a start.  Peter’s father wasn’t humiliated by being smooshed into a pie (yes, I thought that as a child); he was killed and cooked.  And then there’s the question of themes of the forbidden garden and so forth, if we want to get even further into things.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is different.  My toddler, I suspect knows it’s a story about a man who really loves books, but how much more does she see?  She picks up on the Humpty Dumpty book who accompanies Morris through the story.  She loves the library.  She adores the flying books, and the fantastical nature of the illustrations.  Story?  I’m not sure she sees it.

As an adult, I sometimes catch myself ferreting, I feel, too much at the story.  “What’s the Deep Significance of Humpty Dumpty?  Who is the lady who sends Morris Lessmore the Humpty Dumpty book?”

Here’s what I wonder: Is 8 years old, or thereabouts, maybe the perfect age for a book like this?  Oh, my daughter and I both adore the book–I don’t mean that it’s not good at other ages.  What I wonder is if a middling age might let you get this kind of reading:

Morris Lessmore is a man who loves books and is comfortable in his own set way of life, writing away daily in his own book.  One day, his life is turned up and over and he loses his entire comfortable life, including his books– and although he retains the book in which he writes, even that writing seems jumbled.  But, when he one day looks up from this depressed state, he’s guided by a kind of Book Angel to a library, where he makes a new life of tending to the books and sharing stories.  When he finally reaches the end of his life, happy and fulfilled, his own book joins the library, and begins a new cycle of sharing stories with new people.

In other words, I think that primary school children are exactly at an age where they can grasp the plot from out of the fantastical elements of the book– but aren’t yet at the age where they have to obsessively look for The Real Meaning of everything.

So, let me make a recommendation: Go to your favourite bookstore, buy a few copies of this book, and give your favourite Grade 1-3 kids a nice surprise present, give your local library a present, and donate one to your local school or a charity with a focus on literacy.  Let’s spread the picture book love!

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