Today I started sorting through the children’s bookshelves in our house. I put away board books which we don’t read so much any longer and, well, tried to figure out whether to put away any of the picture books, fairy tale collections, children’s novels, etc. Spoiler alert: I found that part almost impossible. Board books were hard enough (not all of them made it into the box), but picture books and older books? No. I think this problem stems from what we can call my “acquisitions process.”
Here’s how I buy kids’ books: a) If I think the Changeling will really enjoy something; b) If I really love something; c) If I think that the Changeling will enjoy something sometime in the course of the next decade.
So, if I try to cull what goes on the shelf according to a principle of “what we’re reading with the Changeling right now,” that doesn’t line up with how things get there in the first place. Frankly, I think even Marie Kondo would give up on me. Today’s book is a prime example of a picture book I recently bought, haven’t yet read with the Changeling, probably won’t read with her for some time yet, but is definitely going to stay on my bookshelves in a prominent place. It’s called Willy’s Stories by Anthony Browne, and I think that you and your early novel-readers are going to love it.
NB: Willy hasn’t started his literary life in Willy’s Stories, although that’s where I first met him. Author-illustrator Anthony Browne has been writing about Willy for over thirty years now, but in the UK. Candlewick Press brought Willy’s Stories to the USA in 2015, however, and I’m thrilled that they did.
The story goes like this: every week Willy walks through a set of apparently ordinary doors (i.e. he goes to the library), and every week he ends up in an extraordinary adventure. Let him show you his adventures: He finds himself on an apparently deserted island until he sees a single footprint in the sand; He’s wearing a fine suit of clothes and needs to cross a stream, so he asks a merry priest for help; He goes through the doors and falls down a deep rabbit hole and sees a rabbit checking a pocket watch. And so on and so forth, Willy guides you through your favourite classic stories and novels, books you’ll find at your own local library!
It’s a wonderfully simple idea, beautifully executed. Each full-page accompanying illustration shows a vivid snapshot which matches the snapshot in the text: falling down the rabbit hole (book-lined shelves on all sides), crossing the stream (with an abbey made of books behind him), on the desert island (with a palm tree of stacked books). The pictures sit right on the cusp between completely tumbling you into a whole new story and a glimmering awareness that this is a book, it’s a story, it’s not really, really happening… look, there’s a palm tree made of books! It can’t be real. (Oh, also, there’s a chimpanzee in a sweater vest.) And yet… and yet… there’s Friar Tuck and Robin Hood, I’m sure of it! It’s a lovely teasing pull.
In other words, the text and images do a truly fantastic job of emulating the feeling of total immersion in a story: You always know there’s words on the page in front of you, but you also know that you’re on a desert island or a pirate ship or are wearing a fine suit of Lincoln green as you hunt the deer of Sherwood Forest.
You might be wondering at this stage, “OK, so why aren’t you reading this with the Changeling just yet if you love it so much?” Oh, I want to. I may end up doing it, actually. I can never resist sharing good books with her! Here’s the thing, though: this book really isn’t for toddlers. (Candlewick recommends it for 5+, and I think that’s right.) For the ideal experience, in fact, the book wants you to have at least a basic familiarity with the stories it talks about. Which is one of the reasons I love it so much. It’s a picture book perfectly suited, I think, to the readers Betty Carter talked about in the Horn Book Magazine article I cited on Friday, “Escaping Series Mania.” If you’ve read Treasure Island, you’ll love this book. If you’ve read even a pared-down version of Alice in Wonderland or even watched The Wizard of Oz without reading the actual novel, then you’re ready for this book. I don’t think a toddler would get it, although I can tell you the Changeling is enchanted by the pictures.
All right, you say. So it’s aimed at kids who have already read these books, then. So what’s left to interest them in this book? Well, first of all, no: you don’t need to have read all the books, or even any of them– you just need to have the cultural background to get that these are stories you can find in your library. Maybe, as I said above, you’ve only watched The Wizard of Oz, but never read it. So then you flip delightedly through this book, enchanted by the vivid snapshots of text and illustration. “Wait,” you think, “this is a book, too, from the library? I should look into that…” Or else, perhaps you’ve read Robinson Crusoe, but never Treasure Island. You read along through the book and are thrilled to find another thrilling adventure story. “Wow,” you think, “that sounds fun…” Or maybe you’ve never read any of them, but you’re old enough to have heard about the stories and these give you just a taste of them– you get where I’m going, don’t you?
My point is that this is like going out for tapas or mezze: you should be old enough to be eating more than mushed up bananas, and curious enough to give the beet salad a go, but you don’t need to have tried every single dish in advance (what’s the point of that?): you just need to have the appetite and spirit of adventure ready to sample. And the best scenario is that you get really excited by the beet salad and decide to try to find out more about it later! This book is a book of appetizers, and it gently directs you to the library for the full course. I encourage you to hand it to smart youngsters ready for adventure, and remind them that the wonderful librarians of the world can give them a menu when they’re ready.