Where are you?
I’m on planet earth, in North America, in the United States, in Massachusetts, in Boston, in Inman Square, working and visiting my old neighbourhood… and suddenly I got the urge to write to you. And I thought, “Here We Are.” Here We Are is a beautiful book by Oliver Jeffers, whom you know (along with Sam Winston) from A Child of Books.
Oliver Jeffers is (arguably) one of the best-known children’s author-illustrators working today, and deservedly so. And Here We Are really shows his work at its best.
What do I love about Here We Are? Oh, there’s so much to love! The art is Jeffers’s best– the sketchy, child-friendly feel with infinite sophistication in the details. The text is warm and communicative without ever talking down to the child or the adult reading to the child.
But what I love best is the trajectory of the story. Do you remember way back when I first told you about Madlenka’s Dog? It’s been a while, so I won’t be offended if you need to refresh your memory. In brief, Madlenka’s Dog starts out with the universe and rapidly narrows its scope to Madlenka herself, and the others on her block who own dogs. Oliver Jeffers does something pretty similar, but his focus is a little difference and his pace is more gradual.
Oliver Jeffers begins in space, with a map of the solar system (“probably not to scale”), and talks about our place therein, then relative to the moon, then the land and the sea, then the sky, then the nature of the land and of the people who inhabit the land. He talks about our relationships to the earth and to each other. He talks about how similar and how different we are, one from another. Then he gets more specific, talking about families and what people do (“Generally how it works is that when the is out it is daytime, and we do stuff.”), and how things move slowly sometimes and quickly sometimes. And then he steps back, “Well, that is Planet Earth,” but never too far back (“I won’t be far away.”)– the direct address, as parent to child, keeps the book very intimate.
And I tell you this much: I am not a weepy sort of a person (except for the end of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Giselle, and… fine, I can be weepy, but not gratuitously weepy, OK?) but I got choked up at the last few pages of Here We Are.
I feel that’s important to tell you. Because this book does two things: a) It provides a kind of floor plan to living on earth, and b) It creates a sense of intimacy between the earth and its peoples, and among the people on the earth, and between the book and the reader… Basically, it’s a linking book. And we can use more links.
I can hear you now: “But… is it preachy?”
The answer is no. It is not remotely preachy. This is Oliver Jeffers, and he always manages to convey something valuable without talking down to the reader. In this book, written for his son, Harland, he speaks directly to his son (or the reader) without speaking down to him. And the warmth and humour of it keep the book upbeat; in that, I’m reminded of Joan Aiken, and I think she’d be happy with the comparison.
Since Jeffers’s son is a proxy for the reader, Oliver Jeffers speaks with warmth, humour, and love. It’s as though someone took a love letter and published it, but, you know, with consent. It’s not creepy! Is it educational? Sure! Who wouldn’t want to teach humanity and compassion to their child? But is it preachy? Not at all.
This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, as I’ve been plowing through books about science (directly educational) and humanity (ranging from preachy to just educational) and pure kids’ lit (literary). My mum came to visit and read a Robert Munsch book to my daughter’s class, and we all remarked on how good it was, what pure fun for the kids, who all adored it– but simultaneously entertaining to the adults in the room.
In this case, I’d say Oliver Jeffers is really talking to kids, not adults. But because he treats kids as humans with good understanding, any adult who listens with an open mind can learn something, too. Compassion. Respect. Gentleness. How to tread a little more lightly on this planet we call our home.
And that, in the words of the last page, “You’re never alone on Earth.”
There’s a growing range of books out there about tolerance and respect. About being fiercely compassionate and standing up for yourself and others. Some, like A Friend for Henry, provide a much-needed perspective in a sensitive, open fashion. Others are, to be blunt, lacking in sensitivity, nuance, or, simply, in artistry, and I can’t see how a child would connect with them.
But I am universally glad these books are finally being written. They’ve definitely been lacking, and more voices is a good thing. Compassion is good. Diverse books are good. STEM and art books are good. They won’t all be good books, they won’t all last, but I thank publishers for bringing them out, and we’ll see which ones rise to the top.
I would lay a wager that one of the books which will last is Here We Are. Its message is strong, stronger than just one generation, and therefore I’m certain it will resonate for years. Its voice, likewise, is strong, and resonates with my daughter and I’m sure with other children.
Basically, I can’t recommend this book strongly enough. The art and message are beautiful, and it will help your child feel wanted and love, and, therefore, will help them love the earth and others. What more do we look for, as parents and teachers?
So give it a try, and then tell me what you think! I think I’m going to see if the Changeling wants to read it again tonight. I have a feeling she’ll say yes.