I Talk Like a River

This is a book I’ve been waiting for, ever since I first saw the first sketches Sydney Smith posted online. Some books you see and say “I’ve been waiting for that story,” or “I know that author and trust anything they write, ever” (yes I’m talking about Hilary McKay and Cat Valente– who are your authors?). In this case, I just knew that any book Sydney Smith said he’d illustrate must be worthwhile. I mean, I was right, but I had no idea how right I was. To be blunt: this is one of the most incredible books to be published in 2020. Possibly the best picture book, end of story.

Even the cover image makes clear the whole new development in style Sydney Smith brings to this book.

I Talk Like a River is a poem-story by Jordan Scott, illustrated by Sydney Smith. I regret that I’ve never read anything else by Jordan Scott; his wordsmithing is incredible and I intend to read more.

When I first read I Talk Like a River, I worried about one thing and one thing only: Would its reach be limited by its subject matter? How would it be shelved? Would reviewers and parents and teachers “get it”? Then I read this review in School Library Journal by Elizabeth Bird and felt enormously relieved. She’s direct and straightforward and right on every point: “Deft poetic language pairs with the resonant watercolors of Sydney Smith to create a book that is more than a memoir and more than conveying a message. This is pain, turned into art, and written for young children.”

Yes, she is correct. More than that, it is art that doesn’t talk down to young children. It takes their ability to understand and engage for granted, and speaks with wisdom and nuance. That being the case, our young children will engage, and, as with a Maurice Sendak or Lobel book, I think they’ll be the ones explaining the book to us old folks.

Here’s the thing: I’ve seen a few too many books which took the idea of “how to have representation in literature for children” a bit too literally. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. It can be a stage to go through in order to achieve the desired outcome: actual honest representation of real lived truths. But it does get a bit wearing to have books which talk down to kids about how Johnny has a stutter and we have to be nice to him and the kids at the school learn to do so (which often comes across as condescension, in all honesty) and there’s a cake at the end.

Jordan Scott doesn’t bother with a cake at the end. He actually has the lived experience, as he discusses in a very honest, personal note at the back, “How I Speak,” and he knows for sure that not every kid is going to go through schools where an earnest teacher gets the students to “be nice to” the kid with a stutter and then there’s a damned cake. The point of this book is different and he comes to a different sort of resolution. Neither Jordan Scott nor Sydney Smith fusses with a classroom scene at the end; the boy at the end doesn’t end up with a resolution with his classmates at all. Rather, he concludes: “And I talk like a river.”

Note the beautiful, vague emptiness and isolation of the scene. My heart snapped and swelled and healed.

I know that feeling. Maybe you do, too?

I mean, look: no, I didn’t stutter at school, and I’m definitely not claiming lived experience. But I suffered, I was isolated, I was bullied and looked down on. They called me “the giraffe” (apparently my neck is long, who knew?) and sneered at me for weird clothes (probably legit, but still mean) and bad hair and bad skin– I sort of forget what else, but I’m sure there was more. I carried a few notebooks to school to scribble in, so a murmur went around that I was “using them to write nasty stories about people at school.” I distinctly remember that, at the time that rumour went around, I was writing a story about cloud fairies. I recently looked to see if I still had that story. I don’t, but I can promise you it was dreadful because everything I wrote in Grade 7 and 8 was earnest and breathless and terrible. I had no sense of humour or style. I just wanted to be taken seriously, you know? Probably a reflection of the isolation I felt.

Anyway, no. I was not in the group. I was isolated, I was alone, I was vulnerable and scared and hurt and sorry for myself– and I look at that page I ruthlessly photographed for you there and I think: “I know that kid’s feeling, and being in that river is liberating.” Not because of some kind of amazing acceptance with cake which frankly doesn’t happen that often. It’s liberating because you get to a point where you say: “I talk like a river,” or “I write about cloud fairies,” or “I listen to classical music.” (Again: NOT claiming I lived the experience of a stutter, but the feeling of the book called to my experience, too.)

You get to the point where you accept yourself and then, maybe, you can even smile in class. (Maybe.)

I don’t usually cite others’ reviews in my own reviews. But I want to go back to Elizabeth Bird’s review. She concludes with a plea to educators sharing this book with students:

“If a teacher or librarian has a child in their class who stutters, I pray that they do not read this book by preceding it with a statement like, ‘Now THIS book is about stuttering, just like Josh over there. Josh, you’re going to LOVE this!’ It’s going to happen. There’s no avoiding it. But hopefully in most cases the teacher/librarian will ease it into the reading without making a big show about it. Because taken in the right vein, at the right time, for the right reasons, I Talk Like a River could make a significant difference in a kid’s life. Or an adult’s. Or pretty much anyone’s. It’s just that good.”

http://blogs.slj.com/afuse8production/2020/08/27/review-of-the-day-i-talk-like-a-river-by-jordan-scott-ill-sydney-smith/

She’s so right, and on more than one level. Not only would this book help a kid who exactly meets the description in this story. As I said, this is a book by a poet, and the art meets the poetry. Sydney Smith, as ever, adjusted and grew and developed his craft to match the book in incredible ways I can’t define. It looks and feels different from the other books I know and have reviewed and loved– Town Is by the Sea, The White Cat and the Monk, and Small in the City. This is new. And one of the ways it’s new, and very like the text, is the nuance and blur of the line. At exactly the same time as it uses specificity of story and experience (drawn from the genuine pain Jordan Scott endured), it speaks, as poetry and art do, to a wide swathe of people.

It’s not sentimental. It’s not pat, not finished, not resolved. It doesn’t end with cake and smug camaraderie. But it teaches us to think and feel about others’ isolated feelings in a whole new way. Maybe– just maybe– that kid who was so cruel to you also experienced raw pain in isolation and will feel heard and understand and grow…? Or not. But maybe you’ll feel heard and understood and be able to move forward better, yourself, which is always worth something, isn’t it?

This book was healing for me, even though I’ve never experienced precisely what Jordan Scott has. My hope is that people will listen to his experience, draw in the artistry of his words and Sydney Smith’s illustrations, and also, I hope, listen to Elizabeth Bird’s very direct advice. Because this book will help many people, if we pay attention.

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