There’s a lie the status quo likes to tell, and it’s that other possibilities don’t exist, and have never existed: this is the only possible.
This was the truth that struck me so forcibly this time last year when I did not do Martin Luther King Jr. in the library, but used other people, other stories, instead. The most powerful story was Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library, by Carole Boston Weatherford with art by Eric Velasquez. I told these Jewish students to imagine that they were told by a teacher that Jewish history had no culture, no contributions to the world: there were no artists, no scientists, no writers, nothing good came from us. They were angry. I told them that was what happened to young Schomburg: the lie the status quo told him was that he was in an all-white world, it had always been this way, and must be this way. It was all too easy for the kids to relate to his story, and it energized the room with a feeling of kinship, anger, and a thirst for knowledge. What stories were not being told? Schomburg found all of these wonderful stories in mysterious places called “archives”? What else might be there?
If I had those same kids again, this is the book I’d read them, because The Possible Lives of WH, Sailor, by Bushra Junaid comes into this view of history with the resonant richness of a range of possibilities, with all the ways we can look at what we know and all the questions we can ask.
Bushra Junaid sits down in front of the teachers of the world and says, “We do not know all of the answers, so let’s not say we do.” Bushra Junaid turns to the students and says, “I have a story. Here we have a figure of mystery. What do we know? What can we say? We can say so much– and yet we know, for certain, so little. Let’s talk.”
The story in this beautiful poem of a picture book is of the discovery of the remains of WH, all we know of his name. In 1987, the year of my birth, a coffin was uncovered on the Labrador coast, and, when an osteologist and a conservator from Memorial University investigated, they deduced that he was a young man of African heritage, in good health, but missing a forearm– could that have been the cause of his death? Experts thought he was probably a sailor, maybe a midshipman, and buried in the early 1800s. Even this much, as Bushra Junaid explores in her poem, is tentative, and even this much provides a wealth of possibilities.
Most remarkable, however, this poem is not “about WH,” and is in no way peering into him, nor is it voyeuristic. It is one of the most delicately respectful yet robust yet intimate texts I’ve read in recent years; Junaid address WH directly, claiming his kinship, musing about all there could have been in his life. She gives everything a turn: tragedy and success and achievement are all given a chance in her thoughts, and she brings herself into the process honestly, “Some may say I’ve got no skin in the game, | Yet if it’s really all the same, | This child of the diaspora would like to claim | You as kin.” But through it all is a sense of warmth and grief: we will never know WH directly, but, she repeats in her firm refrain, “It’s time that you were laid to rest again.” Let him rest, she asks us.
There is a quiet paradox here. On the one hand, we are so glad to have met WH, to have Junaid able to tell us about him. And yet, on the other hand, we look at it all laid out on these pages and agree with her: yes, let him rest now. We feel no detachment, as with ancient stones in the desert; we would like to see him respectfully laid to rest with a marker, with words on a tombstone, perhaps with some verses from this poem inscribed nearby.
Junaid unfolds so many possibilities: Was WH born free and enslaved, or was he born a slave on a plantation? Was he born closer, maybe in Nova Scotia, to parents given a plot of poor land after fighting for the English in the American Revolutionary War? We see, running through her words, which rock like a boat on gently rolling waves, so many ways that Black lives have always been part of the world we live in, whether in the USA, Canada, or anywhere in the world. And I do not see how any reader can go through this book without seeing the world in a richer, more nuanced, and more colourful way.
You will have noticed, in this, that Junaid reduces nothing, neither history nor language nor story. She is certainly concise: not a word is wasted. Her focus on WH means that the book is precise and exact; it is not sprawling. But she uses a wonderful blend of colloquial and elevated grammar and vocabulary, a rich and textured palate of words that will have students sounding out the text and exploring words that, if young enough, they may not know: diaspora, traverse, grit, and so on. The sentence structure working with her gently rocking, yet robust, poetic form carries all the dignity she wishes to confer on WH, and may likewise challenge young readers. My expectation, born of experience, is that it’s the kind of challenge children will love– it tells them she trusts them and is in no way patronizing or condescending. This is, in a word, a tour de force.
I want to leave you with her words, and I want you to please think of sharing this book with any child you know, in a classroom or library or your own home– or, perhaps, you want it yourself. It’s a beautiful poem. And so, here is the link again.
All these things we can’t possibly know– They have only made my curiosity grow About all the possible lives you may have lived.
I don’t know from whence you came, And I don’t know your rightful name, but you Remain.
Respect is due. It’s time that you Were laid to rest anew.
I try to do a holiday post every year, but you may have noticed I didn’t in December. I just didn’t. Nor did I do an end-of-year “Best of…” list. I didn’t do ALA Youth Media Awards predictions, either. Part of that was being busy: homeschooling, teaching another course for kids to make their own picture books, and much more has been occupying my time. A lot of it, though, was dissatisfaction with those formats. Which holidays? Best of what, exactly? And the ALA Youth Media Awards continue to fail to call me for my opinion (how dare they?) and also apparently I keep selecting books that aren’t eligible for consideration.
So I’ve been tinkering with this since December, collecting titles and thinking about them. I’ve decided to tell you about books I think are beyond beautiful and would be great gifts for anyone else or would simply be lovely books for you. If you have a gift giving occasion, I think you should consider these. If not, I think you should consider them anyway, because they’re beautiful books, and there’s always a reason to buy books. If you need a reason to buy books but can’t come up with one, please consider asking me to help with that; I’m truly skilled at finding reasons to buy more books. It’s one of my most masterful skills.
I’m going to be incredibly ornery, too, and mention a few books I bought from the UK. They may make it to North America at some point, and, regardless, people who aren’t based in North America read this, and I like to share books no matter where they’re published. I wish every book was available everywhere, but, strangely, I’m not supreme monarch of the globe and no one has yet adopted my platform for Universal Book Access. I don’t know why. I think they ought to reconsider my suggestion.
The key criterion I used was “did I come away with the feeling that the creative team firmly believes that children deserve quality as much as adults do?”
First, I want to remind you of Frindleswylde, which I reviewed more fully at that link. I feel like I’m collecting beautiful wintry stories and this fairy tale by the O’Hara sisters is, truly, among the best of the best. Given I’ve reviewed it already I’m holding back from going into it all over again, but I love the space that’s not filled with explicit detail, I love the element of genuinely startling surprise, and I love that the ending leaves space for the reader’s imagination to keep on growing.
Two other wintry tales, and these are not (yet?) available in North America, are from Abi Elphinstone and Fiona Woodcock, The Snow Dragon and The Frost Goblin. Both of these have the loveliest blue-and-silver art with all the colours of snow and frost swirling quietly around. Phoebe in The Snow Dragon and Bertie in The Frost Goblin are deeply sympathetic characters, and Bertie in particular pulled me in with his budding friendship with the goblin child, Ada. Do you know a child with a wobbly heart– are you a child with a wobbly heart? Then you should probably read this book and find out just where the frost comes from.
This, now, is the last of my wintry ones. Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost is a natural poem to present in a full illustrated edition, and so it’s been done before. But this one, by P.J. Lynch, is a particular marvel because of one particularly important point: it doesn’t try to warm it up, fill out the narrative, or explain a single thing. Here we have a woman on horseback riding out of the endpapers, past the half-title page, into the poem, away from people, through the snow, into the trees, and stopping, gazing off into the falling snow, three-quarter profile facing away from us, contemplative. The horse who thinks it’s so queer to stop gets an embrace, and the illustrations move from the woman to allow our gaze to go over the frozen lake, and when we return to her she’s looking a bit more relaxed as she watches the horse shake his harness bells, and lets the wind sweep the snow on by… And then with a look backwards– is she regretful, will she miss the quiet and beauty?– we ride off forward, with miles to go before we sleep… and so we leave her, letting her go those miles before she sleeps. The yearning, the quiet, the darkness, the whisper– it’s all there. I have seen no other edition of this book which has so fully reached the unspoken heart of the poem; this is it. Robert Frost would be proud.
A book I’ve recently given as a gift on multiple occasions recently is The Mouse Who Carried a House on His Back by Jonathan Stutzman with art by the glorious Isabelle Arsenault. This is a book which could, so easily, have been sappy, saccharine, and “about being generous” in the wrong hands. Instead, it’s strangely gripping, prompting me to read it again and again both for the comfort of being encompassed in the lovely house and to try to figure out how this team managed to make the book so beautiful. It is not simple. It is, in many ways, a parable in the manner of a few thousand years ago.
If we look at the parables in biblical literature– midrash, the parables of the New Testament, and so on– and if we remember that this was a common and necessary way of communicating complex ideas (“All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them” [Matthew 13:34]), then we might find ourselves wondering what happened to parables. I worked with a professor in my graduate degree who suggested that our modern parables are picture books– Peter Rabbit, perhaps. I think The Mouse Who Carried a House on His Back certainly qualifies. Like a parable, depending on how you read it, it tells you more and more. One way to read it is as a commentary on generosity: Is the mouse an Abraham, wandering with his home and welcoming in those who need food and shelter? Or is it a commentary on assumptions and judgments: The other animals fear the bear, but the bear needn’t be feared? But it was the cat who first made a threat, honestly, and, in fact, was the first example of being trustworthy by being trusted. There’s just so much to unpack, and all of it is rendered more delicate, more layered, more nuanced, and more beautiful by Isabelle Arsenault’s art, which is as rich and textured as the text.
On the completely other side of the equation comes the uncanny. These can be quite as vivid, sympathetic, and representative of any gentle virtue you like as the sweetest or kindest book in the world– but they come from a different, more mysterious place.
One of the finest of these, again, is not (yet???) available in North America. (I really hope something is done about these egregious oversights, but for now, I’m happy to tell anyone on this side of the Atlantic about the lovely shops I get books from on that side of the Atlantic, link for this is to one good shop.) I confess I got Leina and the Lord of the Toadstools in the first place on pure impulse. I love Júlia Sardà’s art and am easily lured to get anything with her name on the cover– another book I loved this year was The Queen in the Cave, which is her first book as author-illustrator (available in North America, thank you, Candlewick!) and, I fervently hope, not her last. (Both of these books are older level, not a classic picture book: a child who likes graphic novels or full, illustrated folk or fairy tales, might enjoy these.)
I like putting these two together because I feel like they’re talking to each other, which I think makes sense given the art link, but, also, given the role of natural forces in each of these two books.
While both are uncanny, chilling, and, to some degree, quest narratives with uncertain (but satisfying) outcomes, Leina and the Lord of Toadstools is a rescue narrative with the classic storyline of a forbidden room which leaves a telltale mark on the hand of the invading figure, a challenge to a game, and the defeat of a terrifying opponent to rescue a host of people transformed into animals…
And yet we are left with so many unanswered questions, provoking us to think, to reread, to scan the art, and always leaving us intrigued. After Leina rescues Oren and the rest of the villagers, the relationship with the forest changes—but why? Is the toad gone? Who is the good spirit of the forest at the end? For whom do they leave offerings? Why did Mr. Spadefoot, the Lord of the Toadstools, come to town in the first place? Do you have answers? I do, but, also, I certainly do not.
The one thing I know for certain is that in this book Júlia Sardà does one of my favourite things: borders. Why oh why is it less common to see beautiful borders around text or around pages than it used to be? Is it because Trina Schart Hyman was so good at it that the world took one look and said it couldn’t be done better? Well, Júlia Sardà’s in this book—and to some extent in The Queen in the Cave, though in a different fashion—are beyond beautiful.
The Queen in the Cave, as a whole, feels more impish, with a glance of daring through the heart and the eyes, than Leina and the Lord of the Toadstools. Leina is grown, and her story has the full feeling of a story right out of a Joseph Jacobs or Andrew Lang (or what’s that Russian dude) collection. The Queen in the Cave is about three girls who are together—but one somewhat different. Rather than going into the dark with fear in the heart but determination to rescue a friend, Franca is going into a forest, into a cave, for no real reason but a desire to go where no one has ever gone before. She has a funny feeling, a different feeling—and her sisters, Carmela and Tomasina, do not. Franca is alone in her adventure, and Carmela and Tomasina are there in contrast, but since we see things more through these two younger girls, we pretty much feel on the outside of Franca’s experience, and left out. No matter which side you’re on, Franca’s or theirs, you’re still left out: either alone on the adventure, or on the outside. The story is, inherently, lonely.
But oh so rich. It is a story, constantly, of yearning. We want adventure, like Franca. We want safety, like Tomasina. We want it both ways, like Carmela. Strangeness, comfort, mystery, growing, and yet– in the end– cuddling, three sisters, loving each other, together. With something strange just outside the window.
Lord-a-mercy, I’m starting to wonder how many books I can fit in one post. But I must onwards to at least this, and that one… starting with Paradise Sands by Levi Pinfold, a tale so folkloric (another of bargains and animal transformation, like Leina) and so strange and enchanting that it reached deep to the back of my psyche, turned a doorknob to a forbidden room, handed me six pomegranate seeds, and kept me coming back to read it again and again. An old song, a road trip, a visit– and generations. This could be a good story, I think, for Hallowe’en, whether in class or in the library or at home. But I don’t think it’s limited to that. There is the question of age. In this case, I find myself impatient with the question because I think it’s the kind of book many ages can get something out of at many different levels: it’s so entirely true, so honest, that different readers will all come away with a different angle and understanding in mind. But it’s truly a legitimate question, I know, since elementary school teachers reading this just want to know, “Can I read it to my class?” I would be less likely to try it with Kindergarten. Grade 2 and up may be best, but that depends on your Grade 1 class, though that age group changes radically from the beginning to end of the year– oh honestly! You’re a grown-up! Read it yourself and be the judge. You may not be able to get up from the book, though, it tends to hold on to you…
This last book in this post is yet another book that holds on, and another of transformation, but of a different kind– not warping, not losing, but gaining, broadening, flying. This one, without a doubt, is one to read with your younger kids, and more so for you to enjoy through their eyes than the other way around. This book, yes I’m climbing onto a soapbox, this book should have won the Caldecott, except for that pesky eligibility issue. This book is a dream made paper, but the best kind of dream, the dream of flying and soaring on wings of paper and art and ink and text taking flight. You all need this book. The Woman Who Turned Children into Birds by David Almond with art by Laura Carlin is a masterpiece. Somewhere, somewhere, Maurice Sendak is whispering: “YES.” Children will understand it intuitively, adults will find the frozen lake of pragmatism within them warmed and cracking open by Nanty Solo: “Go on. Be happy. Off you fly!” You think I’m nutty, freaky, batty, spooky, you don’t want to meet Nanty Solo? But what on earth are you frightened of? I say no more, I’m done… but I invite you, with David Almond and Laura Carlin as your guides, “Go on. Be happy. Off you fly!”