A River by Marc Martin came out in March 2017, and when it came out I snagged it at first sight from The Children’s Book Shop. At the time, though, I thought the Changeling was a bit young to appreciate it, and it slept nicely on a shelf until I hit a cracking point this week and needed a gentle, beautiful book to help me out a bit. A River did that beautifully, and today, after yet another day of terrible news (please consider first reading this and then donating here) I’m going to tell you about it in case it helps you, too.
I encourage you to come to this book as you would to a work of art: the words are muted, gentle guides, but the true story comes through the art. A small child sits at the window, looking out to the river. The river stretches off to the distance, and the child pictures a little silver boat on the river. The boat carries the child, exploring wherever the river takes them. Off they go by cities, through jungles, over a stormy sea, and, finally, back home. The story is soft without being flaccid, and it has a core of great strength– the river itself– carrying the reader from beginning to end.
As I said, the art does the brunt of the storytelling, and it does so largely by atmosphere. Everything, from the cover and the endpapers to the story pages themselves, is marked by undulating curves and suffused with a variety of watery colours (unsurprisingly, the art is done in watercolours as well as gouache, pencils, and digital collage). As for the story pages, the opening of the child’s room is full of lush but muted, almost vintage, detail. Toys are scattered, a cat stands behind the child-artist’s chair, and various plants and decorations mark the walls and bookshelves. Then, as you turn the pages, these details come back… the toy car beside the bookcase anticipates the traffic in the city, the horse returns in a farm scene, the toucan in the jungle. Not all details map perfectly to full-page spreads as the river coils on, but there’s plenty to engage the eye– and the eye is busily engaged because the further the river flows from the city, the more luscious the landscape.
This is what I mean when I say to approach the book as artwork: first, because the art is so lush and so dynamic that it really does do the brunt of the storytelling; second, because it’s just so beautiful that turning the pages without being distracted by many words elicits both emotional and rational thought: “Vivid–deep–dangerous” might be the sequence of instinctive responses as you go from jungle during the day to jungle at night to sailing through the mangroves. And that tells you something, emotionally as well as intellectually.
As for me? My chief response, oddly, was peace. Sure, there’s a lot going on beyond peacefulness: the animals in the jungle are surely dangerous, and the stormy seas certainly aren’t peaceful, but relinquishing rational, analytical thought for a moment and allowing my mind just to pulse with responses to beautiful art– that’s peaceful, just like the quiet thoughtfulness of a museum (I wonder: did Delacroix paint a single peaceful painting in his life?), or that moment in between the end of a concert (be it Bach or Berlioz) and the beginning of the applause.
This is, simply put, a beautiful book, an art book. If children had coffee tables, this would be a good coffee table book for children. And if you need a quiet space around your child’s bedtime, this is the book I recommend. Take your time flipping the pages, and let your child prattle on about what they see; after all, they’re the ones voyaging on a little silver boat along the river with the child telling the story… and then coming back to go to bed. Sweet dreams.