I really do try to stick to books that I’ve read with the Changeling here. Some of them really are a bit too old for her (Little Red Writing being a fine example), and either I only read it partially aloud or she sits through it patiently anyway. In fact, let me tell you a secret theory: I think that having my general exams for my PhD while I was pregnant did a lot of good for her patience with books which are too old for her because she’s really good at sitting there sucking her thumb while I read books aloud. I think she just got used to reading stuff way over her head while she was swimming in gestational fluid and now I could read her Shakespeare and she’d sit through it.
I should try that.
Anyway, the point is that I try out most books here on the Changeling for one simple reason: I like to see how they work when they’re read aloud. I think that’s important for children’s books. Remember Moominland Midwinter? I was really surprised when I read that one aloud to the Changeling– it reads aloud beautifully, and my perspective on the book changed from when I read it as a novel, quietly to myself. (Confession: I’ve read Jane Austen aloud to the Changeling, too, back when she was a bit younger. Unsurprisingly, it’s delightful to read aloud. She made a fine audience when she was 9 months old or so.)
OK, so that’s fine. I’ve made a singularly compelling argument for reading books aloud and you’re all convinced that I should never post about any book here without reading it aloud first. And now I’m going to disappoint you.
The Great Journey, by Agathe Demois (sadly I can’t find a website for her) and Vincent Godeau is such a breathtakingly beautiful book, physically, that I haven’t been able to bring myself to share it with the Changeling. She’s a very careful three-year-old, but she is three years old, and she might harm the book, and I just don’t think I could bear that. That’s the truth, and that’s why it’s taken me several months to get to posting this. Because I couldn’t admit to you that I bought a book for my daughter (introduced to me by the remarkable staff at this store) which I haven’t shared with her for fear of her damaging it, so I haven’t read it aloud, so I didn’t want to post about it, so…
So I looked in the mirror this morning and said, “Dammit, this book’s too good not to share with the blog. Confess, and post.”
Here’s the cover:
Curious, are you? Wait just a minute while I tell you a bit about this book. It was first published in French as La Grande Traversée by Éditions du Seuil in 2014 and was translated into English by Rae Walter and published by Tate Publishing. (What is it about these French books? Bébé Balthazar, Apples and Robins, My Wild Family… there are so many great ones right now! But then, the same is true of Canadian, British, and American books, so perhaps we’re just living through a Golden Age of children’s literature.)
Sorry for that digression. I swear this all matters. The fact is that I’m noticing a trend about these marvellous French books. What I love about them, even in translation (and they do tend to be beautifully translated), is that they often tell two stories simultaneously. This isn’t exclusive to French children’s books, of course (Something From Nothing comes to mind as a great Canadian book which has a second story of a mouse family in illustration right underneath the main story), but these contemporary French stories are often very creative in what goes on simultaneously. Take Apples and Robins, which has the story of the apples and robins and the turning seasons, but also has the story of colours and geometry and how illustrations happen. My Wild Family has the story of family members and their various characteristics, but it also has the more whimsical story of the relationship between human and animal characteristics, and how people think about that. They make you think.
Well, our book today has a more explicit “two story” approach. And, dear God, how I love it. There’s the story of the birds’ migration, as told through the perspective of Red Beak (Rouge-Bec in the French version). You can read this story as it stands. Forget about the second story entirely, just don’t worry about it. This is the story of a bird who travels from his forest to the jungle. All of the words are in a lovely light blue and the illustrations are in bright red linework, exquisitely detailed, with a faint tracery of blue underneath, easily ignored if you want to, or adding some cute details if you want to pay attention to that sort of thing.
See? There’s a farmer, Peter, who’s watering his vegetable garden, and Rouge-Bec (Don’t you think “Rouge-Bec” sounds prettier than “Red Beak”? I do.) is perched on his hat. (For some reason the blue lines stand out more strongly in my picture than in the real life book. Ignore them for now.) Rouge-Bec travels along, past ant hills and factories and city streets. He wonders what goes on in the factories and watches the people in the train station. He rests on lovely, sweet icebergs and flies over boats. Finally he reaches his destination and tells his fellow birds such amazing stories about a cloud factory and fishing with sausages– where did they come from?
Well, did you notice on the cover I showed you that there was a red view-finder showing a different picture? Yes, that one. Good. If you use that along the way the blue lines come alive: you’ll see that the factory Rouge-Bec flies past is a cloud factory, the ants lead an amazing life in their ant hill, the sweet icebergs are actually ice cream cones and the people on the boat are fishing with sausages. And, on the final page, as the birds call Rouge-Bec’s story nonsense– you can only see them with that same nonsensical view-finder. Which story is true, you wonder?
Except you don’t. At least if you’re me you don’t, and I don’t doubt there are others who don’t think of questioning either story until those pragmatic birds start calling it into question. Parallel realities seem entirely plausible. Questioning either reality? Inconceivable! One of the realities is just a little… imaginative? Rouge-Bec simply has a knack for seeing things that other birds don’t, that’s all.
Or maybe he’s imagining things. He’s dreaming. It’s all a fantastic vision caused by unaccustomed exertions on a long and difficult journey.
But we don’t believe that. We hold the Magic View-Finder. We see things which are really there. We see everything.
Two stories are in this book. Why should one be more real than the other, I ask you? Well, here’s where my failure as a blogger comes out: I’d tell you what the Changeling thought right about now, except that I don’t know. I do think that she’s a bit young to properly manipulate the view-finder, which is my excuse, but I can’t help wondering: would she take the two stories at face value, as I do, or would she be a pragmatist, like the birds? Maternal instinct says she’d accept the two stories at face value, but that may be wishful thinking.
What do you think of the two stories? Why are there two stories? Why not buy a copy of the book yourself, and see? (I got my copy at my local children’s bookstore, and, uh, by the way? I asked them and they ship! Or check at your own local bookstore.)