Frindleswylde

I am in the fortunate position of sometimes getting review copies for the most beautiful picture books coming out. It still boggles me that people sometimes send me free books. I don’t just mean “it’s so kind and lovely that they give me books and let me think about reviewing them.” (To be clear: it’s truly and wonderfully lovely.) I mean… I just don’t know why anyone would. Here’s an example of why.

I ordered Frindleswylde from the UK months ago (that link is to the Brookline Booksmith, where you can preorder it here in the USA). One of the most self-denying acts of heroism I’ve ever managed was to wait so long to do that; I’d been seeing people talk about it and post the most tantalizing images for whole weeks, maybe months, before I got it myself, and it was described (brace yourselves) as a fairy tale, which is a sure-fire nasty poke to my “Deb, I’m getting you to buy this” zone. I don’t know how I held out so long, but one day I casually decided to look it up, and in doing so I accidentally reminded myself that by ordering directly from the O’Hara sisters you could get a signed copy with postcards and things, which is just too cool, really (and by the way, that link there above is to the page where you can still do that), and I decided to casually check on the cost of postage from the UK to the USA, and well since I got that far I may as well buy it. I did a little happy dance when it arrived. I may have squealed and shown the package to the cats.

And I need to add, for clarity, that since it was a lovely book from Walker in the UK, I had a pretty strong suspicion that Candlewick would be publishing it in the USA at some point, and now I see that the American publication date will be in November, which is wonderful! Also? I sincerely have no regrets that I spent the money for international shipping rather than waiting to hear if it would be released here. I even emailed the people I talk to at Candlewick after I bought and read it to ask if they had publication plans here, because I’m not sensible enough to have done it before. I’m a simple person with a genius for getting picture books wherever I can.*

Knowing all this about myself, I don’t quite understand why publishers don’t simply send me catalogues with lots of pretty pictures and maybe conspicuous arrows to the ones with the most subtly lovely art or inscrutably quirky text.

Which is all background to saying: I should probably be waiting to review this closer to November, when it will be released, at which point I could say things about it being a good Christmas present (which it is, and, intriguingly, would also be good for Chanukah), but we’ve already established that I’m horrible at waiting.

And I have personal yet impractical reasons for wanting to talk about it now.

Next month I’m going to begin homeschooling the Changeling (not a long-term plan, we’re taking a year to experiment). This was not Plan A, nor, Plan B, nor really, a plan at all. Even when we did, finally, choose to remove her from the school she’d been attending, we didn’t think of homeschooling at first. And when we did, the first real decision I made regarding curriculum was to forget about divisions between topics and classes– at least the ones I’ll be teaching. What I mean is that the thought of teaching a science class and a history class and a writing class all started to feel boring, so I decided to blur the lines– and yes this has a point.

I thought about that decision and connected it back to one of the reasons we’d decided we were frustrated with some aspects of schooling the Changeling was receiving: those brilliantly clear lines, drawn in a crisp Sharpie, around so many topics: correct and incorrect, good characters and bad characters, checkmark for good work and exes for bad work, school and out of school. It was starting to get me down (though the Changeling was fine, she didn’t mind a bit), since I have only one question: are you learning or not?

I have no patience with stasis. If you are alive, you should be striving towards something beautiful, you should want to make progress in some way, whether it be towards rest and restoration or learning a skill or working out a problem. Stasis is too close to stagnation, which stinks.

And so I have, equally, a certain frustration with cleanly demarcated lines, and this is where I come back to Frindleswylde (preorder link for Bookshop.org) (I give you so many options).

Take a look at the cover, at those beautiful lines in the art up there! The lines in the text are just as lovely, I promise you. (I also need to tell you in the interest of honesty that the design and production work– well the cover has silver foil accents, I’m just saying ok.)

Unless you’ve tried your hand at it, I’m not sure it’s possible to appreciate the level of work it takes to achieve that immaculate imprecision, that deliberately unfinished appearance which you know is finished, the kind that forces your mind and heart to engage in meeting the creator on the page. Think of Edward Ardizzone, Edward Gorey, Charlotte Voake, Barbara McClintock, Sergio Ruzzier, Qin Leng, Steve Light, etc, and not for nothing are many of these equally skillful authors.

Frindleswylde is created by sisters Lauren (the illustrator) and Natalia (the writer) who merge their skills without losing their distinct powers– a blurred line, again. The art for Frindleswylde is done with gouache and ink washes and pencils (I believe, I’m remembering notes from an Instagram post from long, long ago when I was obsessively tracking but certainly not buying from the UK, that would be absurd). The effect is subtle, luminous, evoking the protagonist Cora’s leap into another world. The text meets it. The lines seem so very clear: Frindleswylde is the dangerous ice boy king of the wintry world who sets three Impossible Tasks for Cora which she has to achieve in order to rescue her Granny, or else she must become Queen of Winter. She’s even assisted by a stork, a bird helper, making it a perfect fairy tale story– until the lines blur and change.

If I were writing advertising copy I might compare it to the Necklace of Raindops collection by Joan Aiken with art by Jan Pieńkowski, and I think that would be apt and that all four creators would be thrilled with the comparison, as they should be. But now, focused as I am on my kids and my home and this question of learning more largely, I’m thinking of the trust the creators put in the audience, and I’m thinking of lines and what I love about them.

I do not love a crisp, clean line (except when I do). I see the value in precise lines that demarcate this shape from that one, perhaps digital art with saturated colours. But my heart goes out to the art that talks to me, and that art is the kind where the artist (or the writer) has put in a lot of background work only to make me bring my own best self to the page.

Who on earth is Martin Pippin, I wondered as I first read the book. Eleanor Farjeon doesn’t tell you, but by the end you know him better than if he’d been introduced cleanly and clearly. The art by Richard Kennedy is equally allusive and elusive, capturing the whimsical mischief of the book with its interlaced stories. It calls me in, and I have to do the rest.

Why am I thinking this now? This is the work I think I’m doing, now. I’m doing the background labour. I’m breaking down a lot of crisp, clean lines between “classes” and instead coming up with projects that will encourage the Changeling to bring her own best self to the work. I’m keenly aware I’m going to have a lot of messed up artwork, all done by a shaky hand, still learning, to shove aside as we start this homeschooling project, and I’m going to try not to despair as I mess up, but I’m hoping that if I do the kind of prep work and roughs that allow for the glorious imprecision of a blurred line, our framework for this new venture will be both strong and flexible, allowing us to come up with a lovelier and more nuanced final artwork than we could have with the clean lines carving things up. I’m going to remember that stories like Frindleswylde couldn’t work with an obvious line, and the O’Hara genius was to make the story feel obvious to us while also obfuscating the obviousness.

Well, we’ll see. But it’s a venture worth pursuing, so, with Cora and the stork, I will tumble into a new world and see what I can learn. The tasks may not be so impossible as all that.

Meanwhile, I’m going to encourage you to see how inspired you may feel by this beautiful art and original yet traditional fairy tale– Frindleswylde is out in November!

* Speaking of that– I got some books in France and Pollux wants to warn you I might talk about some of them at some point. Or not. You never do know what will show up.

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