A Child of Books

I’d say that I have a definite “type” of picture book I particularly love.  “Yes,” say my devoted readers, “ones with words and pictures.”  OK, granted, it doesn’t take much to attract me to a fancy new book.  But within the realm of the picture book, there’s a type which really hits me in a vulnerable spot– which makes me choke up and get emotional as I read it: the books about books.  We’ve already touched on some of those: Willy’s StoriesThis Is Not a Picture Book!This is SadieThe Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.  All of those are about books and stories, and I love them all.

If you’re like me and you love books about books, I have got a book right here which is going to have a very special place in your heart.  It made me choke up right in public the first time I read it.  It’s called A Child of Booksby Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston, recently published by Candlewick Press.

a-child-of-books

The story is of a child of books who is showing another child around her world: she guides him over mountains of make-believe, they lose themselves in forests of fairy tales, and they escape monsters in haunted castles.  The child of books is a guide to her friend, but they also work together: they both participate in and experience the world they made from stories.  They both live in the “home of invention,” to which, ultimately, “anyone at all can come, for imagination is free.”  (God, I’m choking up again.)

I could go on forever about the beauty of this book, from the design to the text to the illustrations (which are done beautifully in watercolour, pencil, and digital collage).  I could talk about the end-papers which are an elegant wallpaper of book titles and authors.  I could talk about the subtle use of words to shape clouds of song for the children to sleep on and mountains of make-believe for them to climb over.  I could go on forever about the gentle beauty of the language which both evokes the world of the imagination built by others and creates a new imaginative landscape for its readers.  And we will talk about that.  (I mean, I just did, in my sneaky little way.)

But I also want to talk about how I came to find this book, and about children of books and homes of invention.  You see, maybe you’re a child of books yourself, and maybe you know some homes of invention.  This is my story:

I’ve bragged a bit to you all before about my local children’s book store, The Children’s Book Shop.  Well, I went in earlier this week and one of the lovely employees said, “We just got in a shipment of books and one of them is the new Oliver Jeffers.  You’re going to want to see it.”  I had to rush away before it was unpacked because, well, sometimes I have things to do other than hang around good books, but I made a special trip back there today, I was so excited to see this book.  As soon as I stepped through the door she handed it to me with a smile.  And that’s where I first read it, and, as mentioned, sort of choked up in public as I flipped through it.  (I also bought a few other books because it would have been irresponsible to make a special trip to Brookline for just one book.)

After I had a chance to read A Child of Books properly, by which I mean reading it aloud to the Changeling at bedtime, I got to thinking: Who is the child of books?  In the illustrations, she’s a little girl guiding her friend.  But who is she?  I thought of all the guides I’ve had to the world of stories– friends, teachers, my husband, my family… my world of stories would be much poorer without these guides to the mountains of make-believe and the forests of fairy tales.  I thought, too, about the “home of invention” where the child of books lives with her friend.  Surely you’ve encountered “homes of invention.”  Growing up, there were libraries where I spent hours browsing the fairy tale shelves, and there was also my mother’s library which I plundered mercilessly (sorry, Mummy).

And as I thought it occurred to me that there was a beautiful symmetry between how I came to find this book and its contents– The Children’s Book Shop in Brookline is a “home of invention” if any place in the world is, and the staff there are all “children of books,” guides to the stories which line its shelves.  I’ve always been passionate about the value of good libraries and independent book stores, but this book illustrates exactly why these “homes of invention” are so valuable.  They can be good guides to others, as countless librarians and book store staff have been to me, and, in guiding future readers, they can help form future “children of books.”  In fact, I know that as the Changeling becomes a “child of books”, I’m partly responsible, but all of the guidance I’ve had from librarians and The Children’s Book Shop must also be given their due credit.  I’d never have found half the books I’ve talked about here, for example, without help from my guides and the libraries and book shops I’ve had the great good fortune to visit.

To come back to the story at hand more particularly, its genius, as I’ve tried to show, is in evoking the world of stories which surrounds it: the gentle lines of words which form its illustrations are built of other stories (Alice in WonderlandBeauty and the Beast, and so on), all in a landscape of words.  Words from other stories form seas and trees and clouds.  The whole basis of the story is to glory in the world of literature which surrounds it, and the illustrations gently draw our attention outward, to the intertextual world in which all stories live.  That draws us, as I’ve demonstrated, to our own literary lives and our own literary experiences.  Despite drawing so much attention to the world of stories, however, A Child of Books hangs together perfectly as a story all its own with characters all its own and, especially, an aesthetic all its own.  We care deeply about the girl, the child of books, and the young friend she’s guiding, even as they remind us of ourselves and our own lives.  We lose ourselves in their world of stories, even as we find our own world of stories in there with them.

This is a book which will make you grateful for books, their readers, and their homes.  This is a book which is a love letter to all the books and readers of books out there, and I’d be very surprised if it doesn’t help guide more young pre-readers and young readers (and their parents) to “the mountains of make-believe.”

So I want to say a little thank you here.  Thank you to Sam Winston and Oliver Jeffers for writing and illustrating this book.  Thank you to Candlewick for doing such a beautiful job of publishing it.  Thank you to The Children’s Book Shop in Brookline for making sure it made its way into my hands.  And thank you to the Changeling for giving me the opportunity to read it aloud and enjoy it the way it’s meant to be enjoyed, as a shared moment between two children of books.

Apples and Robins

My basically self-inflicted finger injury (dear God, that sounded so stupid I feel ridiculous) is healing well, and I’m able once more to scatter my pearls of insight across WordPress.  No, really, you don’t have to thank me.  It’s my gift to the world.

OK, you all remember the hint I gave you in my apology for taking a day off due to an injured finger (seriously, doesn’t sound any less stupid the second time around), so this will be no surprise.  Maybe you all clicked the link and found yourselves staring at such a lovely book you spontaneously bought it.  You brought it home and loved it so much that your lives are enriched to such an extent that you’ve devoted your lives to the study of geometric forms and what combinations produce the finest robins.  Ultimately, you’ll discover that Lucie Félix (her site is awesome, so visit it!) already came up with it in Apples and Robins (originally Après l’été), which brings us right back to where we started: our book for today, which is an astoundingly simple and elegant exploration of geometry, life, and natural beauty.  It’s like if Wagner’s Ring Cycle were more, well, um, not to put too fine a point on it, but… enjoyable?  (Sorry, music-lovers, including my dad.  I greatly admire the Ring, but you’ve got to admit that it’s not all apples and robins.)

Apples and Robins

But what do I mean, and why, precisely, do I risk alienating all the Wagner fans out there?  Bear with me a moment and we’ll see if I can redeem myself at all.

First of all, let’s talk about how, once again, Chronicle Books has found a remarkable French book to bring to American eyes.  Keep doing this, Chronicle Books, and I will keep buying them.  They are so pretty.  They are so clever.  They are so smart.

Smart and clever are perhaps the first words to come to mind right after the “oooooh, pretty” infatuation abated.  (That’s a technical term right there.)  I snapped this book up in all of five seconds after I spotted the illustrations and flipped the first two or three pages.  It just spoke to me.  But I admit that I wasn’t sure it would speak to the Changeling, so it settled on a shelf for a little while, only read by me.  Then, this past weekend, I realized something which should have occurred to me before, but didn’t because I am apparently as dense as bad soda bread:

IT HAS BIRDS IN IT.

I don’t know if you’ve heard about this before, but, y’know, the Changeling loves birds.  So we read it, and she loved it.

“But, wait a second,” you ask.  “Why in the world weren’t you sure that your book-loving toddler wouldn’t go for this book?”  An excellent question.  First of all, I’m dense.  Second, this really is a very, very clever book.  It’s engineered in a visually stunning way: geometric shapes on the page, when the page is turned, become apples, or a ladder, or a flash of lightning.  Here, let me show you:

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That should give you a basic impression of the book, but the Chronicle Books trailer can really show it off:

You see how it works?  Shapes which just seem abstract and geometric become, when the page is turned, a whole new world of storms and apples and birds.  As I said, it’s smart: it’s one of the smartest books I’ve seen this year, and, being rather dense, I thought it was too smart for my daughter.

Yeah, right.  Too smart for me, maybe, but not for her.  She loves watching the transformations, and, I think, even loves the story which quietly underlies the transformations.

You have apples.  And then you have a ladder.  Next, you add the robins and a birdhouse.  Then comes the storm which disrupts the natural order.  Slowly, though, it is rebuilt.  Apples are gathered and the birdhouse is restored– and then the birds make it their home until spring comes and you have more birds, apple blossoms, and the prospect of the whole cycle beginning again.  (See?  Just like Wagner, but happier, and, well, less dreary.)

Why shouldn’t that be a story which my daughter can understand?  Because, perhaps, she’s too young to remember from season to season?  She remembers winter.  She remembers people.  She remembers almost every word of Green Eggs and Ham, and recites it daily.  So, why assume she can’t remember the season?  Perhaps I was assuming that she’d be bored because there wasn’t a more vivid story?  Well, if I was mesmerized by the changing shapes and colours, why wouldn’t she be?    Perhaps I thought that she couldn’t draw comparisons with Wagner?  Happily, being not-yet-three, no, she can’t.  But I think you can enjoy this book without being familiar with Wagner.  (Now there’s a pull quote for you!)

Honestly, I’m not sure why I thought this book was so much too old for the Changeling.  She’s a clever almost-three-year-old, and this book is recommended for ages 4-6, her usual range in books.  It’s true that she can’t track the geometric changes as the pages turn, but she does find them mesmerizing to watch, just as I do.  It’s true that she’s too young to really grasp the cyclical nature of the world and nature, but she’s also too young to know about theories of the fantastic but she still enjoys The Tea Party in the Woods.

The fact remains that I think there is one simple, poetic story in this book which can be apprehended in as many different ways as you can draw apples and robins: it’s the story of the turning year, and turning pages, and turning leaves.  It’s as beautiful as taking simple boxes and ending up with a slender ladder to get you up into greenest trees.  It’s also as fun as watching a bird pop out of a hole.  It’s a story which grows with you.

Dammit, I’m not sure how to do this book justice except to link to it again here and say this: I’m labelling this book for all ages.  I think the colours will engage an infant (just keep it away from grabby fingers or the holes will tear), but the shapes and story will engage a toddler, and the older you get the more you’ll see.

Also?  This is another one I really want to see in the original French, just to compare.

Guys, this is beautiful, and, sneak peek: this is going on my spotlight list for Monday’s monthly blog summary, you bet it is.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

It feels like an awfully long time since we’ve had a regular book chat, doesn’t it?  And yet it’s only a week!  But what a week: a week marked for me by some major family events (my husband defended his dissertation), by starting off my Monthly Newsletter (as fun as I thought it would be), and by the arrival of my Horn Book Magazine subscription for March/April and May/June.  I love browsing those magazines.  It’s like roaming through the bookstore, but you can do it in your pyjamas and you have a friend to chat with about the books all the time.

This time, though, what struck me was the article “Escaping Series Mania” by Betty Carter in the March/April edition.  Betty Carter tells us that the primary school students who attend her school library are bright kids, and passionate about novel series, and she argues that they would benefit from greater exposure to a variety of picture books.  (I painfully constrict her lovely article there– apologies.)  I was surprised to read this because I remember clearly that, for me, picture books were a highlight of my life through… oh.  Wait.  The present day, I suppose?  Point being, I read them voraciously in Grades 1-3, which are the years she’s talking about.

And so I thought to myself that, for the next few weeks, at least, instead of taking it for granted that everyone is going to see the benefit in reading these picture books with an older audience, why not try making it a bit more explicit?  Let’s ask questions like: How would an older child see these books?  How would they benefit from it?  What’s at stake for an 8-year-old as opposed to a 2-year-old or the parent to that toddler?

And what better book to start with than a book I truly consider an “All Ages” sort of book, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, by William Joyce and Joe Bluhm.

Fantastic Flying Books

One of the remarkable things about this book is that it’s actually based on a video, which you can and should watch here.   Seriously, folks.  Watch that movie.  It will give you back way more than the 15 minutes of your life you spend watching it, I promise.

How do you make a picture book out of a 15-minute short, though?  And what does it mean for the book when you do that?  What excellent questions you ask, and how I wish I could answer them adequately!  The honest truth is that I don’t know much about making a movie, but I do know something about picture books.  And the main aspect this book gains from the movie is animation.  The movie, of course, has action.  The book, of course, is printed on paper.  It can’t move.  Movies move, books don’t.  This is basic stuff.

But… do books really not move?  Hell, I’ve quoted Milton before, and I’ll do it again: “For books are not absolutely dead things,” he says in Areopagitica.  Books are inanimate, but they, well, they are animate.  They animate us.  In this case, though, there’s a more literal type of motion going on: no, the book isn’t animate, I’m sorry, but it does give the sense of animation.  It conveys that impression, the impression of vigour and jumping and motion from page to page.  Books fly, buildings crash, and Morris falls through a book in a torrent of letters gleefully spurting up from the page.  You can hardly believe the book isn’t growing and churning and spinning under your hands.

But what of the plot?  Well, here’s where we get to the question of age, and what different ages might gain from it.  OK, wait: May I remind you, right here and now, of my relationship to talking about ages?  Ages and Why I don’t mention them often.  Thank you.  That disclaimer aside, though, I think I can tell you one key thing about this book and the different ages of children and adults who will read it:  We’ll see it differently.

“Great, Deb,” you say drily.  “Care to tell us that water is wet?”

Patience, dear reader.  Give me a chance to explain.  What I mean here isn’t that, well, in Peter Rabbit a child sees a story about Peter running away from Mr. McGregor and getting home safe to Mrs. Rabbit.  An adult can see a bit more– Peter would have died, for a start.  Peter’s father wasn’t humiliated by being smooshed into a pie (yes, I thought that as a child); he was killed and cooked.  And then there’s the question of themes of the forbidden garden and so forth, if we want to get even further into things.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is different.  My toddler, I suspect knows it’s a story about a man who really loves books, but how much more does she see?  She picks up on the Humpty Dumpty book who accompanies Morris through the story.  She loves the library.  She adores the flying books, and the fantastical nature of the illustrations.  Story?  I’m not sure she sees it.

As an adult, I sometimes catch myself ferreting, I feel, too much at the story.  “What’s the Deep Significance of Humpty Dumpty?  Who is the lady who sends Morris Lessmore the Humpty Dumpty book?”

Here’s what I wonder: Is 8 years old, or thereabouts, maybe the perfect age for a book like this?  Oh, my daughter and I both adore the book–I don’t mean that it’s not good at other ages.  What I wonder is if a middling age might let you get this kind of reading:

Morris Lessmore is a man who loves books and is comfortable in his own set way of life, writing away daily in his own book.  One day, his life is turned up and over and he loses his entire comfortable life, including his books– and although he retains the book in which he writes, even that writing seems jumbled.  But, when he one day looks up from this depressed state, he’s guided by a kind of Book Angel to a library, where he makes a new life of tending to the books and sharing stories.  When he finally reaches the end of his life, happy and fulfilled, his own book joins the library, and begins a new cycle of sharing stories with new people.

In other words, I think that primary school children are exactly at an age where they can grasp the plot from out of the fantastical elements of the book– but aren’t yet at the age where they have to obsessively look for The Real Meaning of everything.

So, let me make a recommendation: Go to your favourite bookstore, buy a few copies of this book, and give your favourite Grade 1-3 kids a nice surprise present, give your local library a present, and donate one to your local school or a charity with a focus on literacy.  Let’s spread the picture book love!

Borrowed Black

There’s a silly, lovely little book I was going to talk about today, but then my daughter stole it and took it to daycare with her.  I can’t blame her: it’s a fun book and it made her happy about going to daycare.  But I was left one book short and had to come up with another book for today.  As I stared at my shelves, looking for another silly, lovely little book, I felt a pull in another direction.  It’s been windy lately, here in Boston, and I guess the wind pulled one idea out of my head and blew another in: let’s talk about Borrowed Black: A Labrador Fantasy, poem by Ellen Byan Obed, illustrated by Jan Mogensen.

Borrowed Black.jpg

This is the opposite of silly loveliness, although it is definitely a beautiful book.  There’s silliness in here, there’s fun, but at the heart of this book is wind, and if you come from my part of the world, Atlantic Canada, then you know damned well that you’d better take the wind seriously.  Ask my mother about driving in the wind there sometime.  I suspect that there’s a reason she loved this book so much (and I learned about it from her, growing up), and I wonder whether part of it wasn’t an underlying feeling that “if you say the wind can do it, then I believe it!”  What I’m trying to say here is that if there’s one part of the world where it makes sense to harness the wind to provide power for the rest of the world, Atlantic Canada is probably your best candidate.  And wind is a pretty integral element of the story of Borrowed Black.

You know what?  I don’t use the word “favourite” very often when talking here.  I love so many books so much that I’m pretty much La Coquette des Livres; if I’m not with the book I love, I love the book I’m with.  And I’m very comfortable with that kind of coquettish streak in my book life (I assure you it doesn’t extend to my family life).  So I don’t bother much with throwing around preferences.  But I’m entirely comfortable saying this: in the world of poetic narratives for children, Borrowed Black is, bar none, my favourite.  I love many of them, but there’s only one that nestles in the deepest recesses of my heart, and it’s this one.  I wish it were still in print so you could buy it easily, but, even so, do try to get your hands on it! (I link you to AbeBooks, which has a good selection.)

Why do I love it so much?  I think it’s because it gives, with every word and every stroke of Jan Mogensen’s beautiful monochromatic watercolours (all blues, relieved judiciously by white and black), the impression that it’s telling an old story– something as fundamental to Labrador as the ocean and the rocks.  And yet, at the same time, it’s completely original: a fantasy, not a folktale.  Ellen Bryan Obed tells the story of writing Borrowed Black on her website: apparently she wrote it when she was twenty-two years old, and with very little revision, and adds, “It was as if it were not my own, that I was penning a story that had always been.”  And that is distinctly the impression that comes across from the book for me, that “it had always been.”  Rocks, ocean, and wind.

Borrowed Black is a Labrador creature who makes himself from bits of the land and sea around him, held together by the wind, which is part of his heart: “He had a borrowing wind for a heart/ That held him together, each small borrowed part.”  But his greed for more makes him a menace: he borrows the very moon from the sky, smashes it to the ground, and buries it deep in the ocean.  Then he sleeps through dark moonlessness until rescue is at hand in the form of a boat in the back of a whale. This boat belongs to Cabbage Captain and his Curious Crew, including Mousie Mate and Sinky Sailor “who was happy and round,/ Who always was laughing without making a sound.”  The quiet humour which slips in here is a welcome relief from the spookiness of Borrowed Black, and Mousie Mate quickly becomes a favourite as he slips into Borrowed Black’s shack and steals the wind.  Pursued by Borrowed Black, Mousie Mate bravely challenges him to show where the moon lies: “Tell us, Borrowed Black, where the moon pieces lie./ You’ll not have your wind ’til the moon’s in the sky!”  Borrowed Black is forced to agree, but the wind can’t mend the broken moon.  So the wind stays in the sky with the moon, and “as night turned to day…” Borrowed Black falls apart and is gone forever.

And here’s where the folkloric feel to the book really comes through:

To this very night on the Labrador
When you stand and watch on the tall, dark shore,
You can see cracks in the moon round and high
And the silver it left on its way to the sky.

And fishermen say if you follow the trail,
You’ll come to the boat in the back of the whale.

OK, let’s take note of a few things here: a) This is a children’s story, with Mousie Mate and the Curious Crew– there really is genuine fun and silliness here; b) This is a spooky story, with Borrowed Black’s glowing eyes and creepy thievery; c) This is a creation myth, explaining some aspects of the world as it is around us– the cracks in the moon, and the trail of light it leaves on the water.  All of these things are true.

But there’s something more: it’s a home story.  It’s rooted in its own place so very deeply that I, who also grew up in the Atlantic provinces (New Brunswick, though, not Newfoundland), feel a sympathetic thrill when I pick it up.  I was desperate for my daughter to love this one, and, even aged two when I first introduced it, she did.  (She also loves wind and snow and takes ice-cold baths.  She’s a Maritimer at heart, that one.)  She had us reading it to her again and again, so often that I’m actually labeling this as an “All Ages” book, even though it’s probably aimed at an older audience.  Clearly some children will enjoy it very young.

I wonder whether I’m the best person to review this one.  It’s so very personal to me, so very much a part of my home and my roots and my background that I almost feel too close to have perspective.  But, then again, I watch my husband reading it with my daughter, and the two are engrossed.  They’re smiling and spooked and delighted.  They love it.  And this is what I think: you don’t have to be Greek to appreciate the Odyssey, or English to love Joseph Jacobs’ retellings of English Fairy Tales.  So, too, you don’t need to be from Atlantic Canada to know a good story when you see one, and this one is, truly, fantastic.

It’s a fantasy, and a fantasy that knows it’s home.  Let the wind blow you in for a visit, but maybe bring a good hot cup of tea with you.

Vincent’s Colors

There are some books out there which really and truly are good for all ages.  Usually when I see a book marked as being for “children of all ages!” in a review, I mentally append, “Please don’t feel stupid for enjoying this as an adult.”  Now, personally, I never feel stupid for enjoying these books as an adult; instead, I spend my time over-analyzing them on my blog.  So, when I say that a book is for “all ages,” this is what I mean: I think that you can go as young as you like with this book.  I think that once your kid is interested in looking at books and listening to words, you can give this book a try, and I think you’ll get something out of it at the same time.  The Fox and the Star was one of these: I found it meaningful, and I think my daughter would have enjoyed it at even a younger age than she is now (two-and-a-half).  Well, here’s another one for you: Vincent’s Colors, words and pictures by Vincent van Gogh.  This comes to us from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Chronicle Books, and it’s so pretty that it should be marketed as “baby’s first coffee table book!”

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The basic concept is simple, but, Lord, it must have taken a lot of work to get just right.  The book presents a series of van Gogh paintings, each accompanied by a brief description of the painting taken from van Gogh’s own letters to his brother, Theo.  Doesn’t that sound lovely?  Let me ruin this for you: I bought this in a rush of excitement from the Chronicle Books website (NB: that website is dangerous and beautiful, like a kind of modern day fairyland), but the reason I bought it was because I was somehow expecting some series of deep, abstruse, inspirational descriptions.  I don’t know, something like: “Here I attempted to capture the shades within shades which permeate the redness of the cap– that whole new spectrum within RED, can you not see it?– and which matches the spectrum of the spirit…”

God, I’m sorry I inflicted that on you.  Please forgive me.  Moving on: I’m so very glad that van Gogh wrote better than that, and that Chronicle Books and the Met decided to pair his beautifully concise descriptions with his lush and vivid images, because they taught me something about how adults, children, and van Gogh himself see and describe art.  To spoil the suspense, let’s just say that adults like me maybe try to see and say too much (quelle surprise!), whereas van Gogh, in these pared down descriptions, perfectly meets the child’s eyes and perceptions, and, through that, we can find a whole other world of art.

To be clear, for all that I’m teasing myself here, I don’t think that adults have dulled perceptions whereas children see the true hearts of things in art.  That’s taking things to the other extreme.  My view is a little simpler: we all see and enjoy what we see and enjoy.  That said, it can give us a bit of a brain boost, a bit of extra fun, to see how someone else enjoys art– and maybe we’ll learn another way to enjoy things.  I first learned this with my daughter by taking her to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum with me.  We didn’t get through the whole museum, of course, and what we saw and enjoyed tended to be about three feet of the ground, maximum, but what a new world!  Stone lions and “pictures of babies” (any art depicting the baby Jesus, basically) were paramount, as well as all of the fountains.  Looking around with her, and through her eyes, I noticed statues I’d passed by with barely a glance on my own.  It was really a new way of seeing a museum I already loved.

I think the same thing holds true of reading this book.  The paintings are mostly familiar, although you may meet some new van Gogh art (always a good thing!), but you may learn a few new things.  This is hard to express in words, so let’s try an exercise.  Three paintings by van Gogh, his description, and what struck me:  First, a certain familiar painting of sunflowers:

Sunflowers

with the words: “twelve flowers that are light on light.”  (I was caught up with the signature on the vase.  Yes, I’m weird.)

You’ll also get Zouave:

Zouave.jpg

van Gogh’s description: “a reddish cap and orange bricks.”  (I was fascinated by the small face emerging from big, embroidered coat.)

And, finally, View of Arles with Irises in the Foreground:

View of Arles.jpg

described as: “some very yellow buttercups.”   (My eyes were struck by the trees and buildings in the background.)

I didn’t just do that because I wanted to look at a lot of van Gogh.  I mean, I do, but I also have the book right here and the colour reproductions in this book are stellar, much better than the internet pictures I grabbed (a reason in itself to buy the book).  I mostly chose these pictures for three reasons: a) to give a sense of the scope of the book, which includes a wide variety of paintings, some more familiar to us than others; b) van Gogh and I focused on very different things; c) I thought those descriptions gave a sense of the variety and level of descriptions included in the book.  Some are a bit more abstruse (“light on light”) and some are very concrete (“a red cap”).  Some are about the main subject of the painting (“twelve flowers”) and some are deliberately not about the object in the foreground (“very yellow buttercups”).  Brief as the descriptions are, their breadth matches the breadth of van Gogh’s art: he touches on everything, and packs a lot into a small space.  Compare “light on light” with my atrocious attempt at art description above, and tell me which you think captures more in a smaller space.  (Hint: it’s not me.  Granted, I perpetrated that atrocity deliberately– mea culpa– but, still.)

That’s great then, that’s what van Gogh sees, and how I understand what he sees.  But what about children?  Have I forgotten them?  I can only speak to my Changeling’s reaction, I’m afraid, but it’s surprising how often what she picked up on aligned with the description.  In order, and I admit that I am somewhat paraphrasing here: “I see flowers!  They’re big.”; “Look at the red hat, do you see the red hat?”; “There’s so much yellow!”  Her reaction is very like her reaction to any other full-page illustration in a picture book, of course, so we’re not exactly looking for art critique here.  (Also, I acknowledge that the editing of the book has a lot to do with this as well; which is to say that the editing is great!)  What’s interesting is that she picks up on and describes the first thing to catch her eye, and, in most cases, that’s pretty much the aspect that van Gogh’s describing.  For Arles, for example, she pretty much didn’t notice the misty, dark irises in the foreground.  The bright yellow strip of buttercups?  Absolutely!  She wasn’t so interested in the man, but his red cap?  Sure thing!  It’s the brightness, the “light on light” which she sought out.

Now, isn’t that worth noticing?  I’m telling you: take your kid (or niece or nephew or grandchild or friend) and go to a museum.  Look with them, and be patient.  Listen.  You may see something you’d never seen before.

The Little Bookroom

Did you have a little bookroom growing up?  I bet you did.  Maybe it was a corner in a library.  Maybe it was, um, your mother’s study.  (Sorry, Mummy.)  Maybe it was a bookstore.  Maybe it was a state of mind, which drew everything into a bookroom in your head.  Maybe it was a state of fingers which drew all books into a bookroom in your bedroom.  (Sorry, Mummy.)  Maybe it was all of the above.  I know I still live in a little bookroom in my mind, and I never feel this more than when I’m anticipating a trip to one of my physical little bookrooms.  The Cambridge Public Library with its brilliant children’s librarians is one such place:

“Hi,” say I, “you were responsible for my child’s obsession with A Bird Is a Bird…”

“Oh, great!” they chirp.  “Here’s more by the same author and if it’s birds she’s after here’s three other books she may love.”

I look them over and in half-a-second at best I know which one is going to steal the Changeling’s heart next.  I sigh and decide to get ahead of the game.  I call the physical location on this earth which most closely resembles the little bookroom in my soul.  “Dear Children’s Book Shop, please put a copy of Feathers aside for me.”  That’s where I’m going today, and I know, I just know, I won’t only be leaving with Feathers.  It’s my little bookroom on this earth, and I love it oh so much.

Unsurprisingly, the Children’s Book Shop is the place where I first encountered The Little Bookroom, by Eleanor Farjeon, illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, the book which is my namesake for this blog.  I want to say right here and now: it’s wholly unfair I won’t be talking about Ardizzone today when he did so much for that book: just believe me that his illustrations are lovely and I have an embarrassing crush on him and his work.  I simply need to talk about stories today– sorry, Edward, I still love you!  Just look at this cover and know that the line drawings inside are even lovelier.

The-Little-Bookroom_1024x1024

The Little Bookroom is the first book I bought at the Children’s Book Shop, I think.  I had always loved Eleanor Farjeon, whose Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard taught me what stories could do.  I can’t think of another way to put it than that: that book does things with stories which make them sing and dance with glee to know that someone out there gave them such lovely new places to grow and games to play.  (Oh, I did figure out another way to put it.  How lucid I am!)  Martin Pippin was the first time I lent a book to someone and she simply couldn’t get into the book.  I urged her to try.  She refused to give it a second chance.  We stared at each other, perplexed by our respective positions.  I look back at it and smile ruefully: that book was just a bit too old and a bit too peculiar for my friend.  I’d been living in a little bookroom for at least two years at that point (I was about nine or ten), but my friend, a clever, even brilliant girl, simply wasn’t used to such a range of story-play.  I wonder, now, how she would have done with The Little Bookroom?  Would she do better with either one now?

For myself, I nearly cried when I first read it.  I’m not sure that I didn’t.  Granted, I was pregnant, and discovering new-to-me Eleanor Farjeon was enough to get me crying.  But the stories– oh, the stories.  The very first one had me hooked in that special, Eleanor Farjeon way: I hadn’t expected that.  What was going on?  What sort of stories was I in for?  Gradually, as story by story unfolded for me and I had to pause between each one to digest a new explosion of “I didn’t know a story could do that!” I decided that it was a compendium of newness.  After I closed the book, I paused and thought: “I know I’ve read these.  Where have I read them before?”  The thought popped up that it was a compendium of oldness, of the traditional in stories.  And then I realized: if the collection has a pattern to it, it’s that the stories each give you that feeling that somewhere, somewhere you’ve read something like this before… and yet you haven’t.  It’s entirely new: it’s one of the children of Eleanor Farjeon’s internal bookroom.  In her bookroom she housed all the old stories, and they’ve danced and played and gossiped together until, one by one, they made something wholly new.  And up it popped, danced onto paper through her fingers, and, thank God, she made them available to us to read.

That’s the best way I can figure to give you a theoretical description of what you’re getting into.  Expect to have your whole notion of how a story works exploded, at the same time as being deeply reassured by how very traditional they are– all with Eleanor Farjeon’s characteristic quirk and charm.  (No, no, I’m not at all teary, thinking about this.)  Apart from that, the best I can do is tell you to read them and figure out your own way of thinking about these stories.  And that goes for you, too, however old you are.  I’m not entirely sure, in fact, that these are children’s stories at all.  Except that they are– everything about the style and fairytaleness of them proclaims that.  In fact, when my Changeling was fussy I read her one of them when she was six weeks old.  But they really aren’t for children, not precisely, not as such– just try one and see.  Wait a second while I categorize this post as “All Ages.”

Old stories and new stories, for adults and for children– are you seeing a pattern here? These stories cover ground. Eleanor Farjeon defies description and I’m done trying.  Let’s talk about one of the stories instead.  That’s what she’d really like.  Let’s talk about “The Clumber Pup.”  A young man, left alone in the world, heads forth to make his fortune.  Along the way he rescues a pup and her mother from being drowned.  After he becomes a royal woodcutter, the pup helps him to succeed in three tasks set by the princess, ultimately winning her hand in marriage.  What a fairy tale!  Rather boring, almost, right?

No.  Dear readers, the depth of love I have for this story cannot be measured in pint pots.  The young man is left in distressing, real poverty when his father dies, and he has to leave behind the one thing he cares for: his father’s chair.  He’s cheated when he rescues the pup, but he doesn’t care, because the pup needs saving and they bond so deeply together. How can I put it?  I believe that even my father, notoriously impervious to any animal’s charms, would be forced to admit that the bond described in this book is lovely and true.  The circumstances of his advent to Royal Woodcutter are mysterious: did the previous woodcutter come back as an apparition to help him?  Did his father’s spirit move things?  How and why did things happen as they did?  We never quite know.  As for the three tasks– the princess is no austere and distant figure in a tower.  She’s a girl who lost her kitten, saw the nice man who brought the kitten back, and started to pine to know him better.  The tasks are traditional: a ring, a note, a gift.  And yet they are almost comic: the note reads: “My love!  I love you because you are as lovely as my clumber pup.”  After all, would a woodcutter be able to write an elegant epistle?  And each of them, princess and woodcutter, loves their animal: he his pup, she her kitten.  And they love each other.  And he doesn’t just move into the castle when they wed: they are happy to stay half the time in the woodcutter’s cabin, especially once he gets his father’s chair there, which is, in the end, his only request.

Do you see what Eleanor Farjeon’s done?  She’s made people.  Real, warm, flesh-and-blood people.  People you love.  Not in a cynical way (so many “modern fairy tales” are just a smidgen too gritty for my taste), but in a way deeply steeped in the fairytaleness of the fairy tale, and also steeped in her own English countryside, and also steeped in stories beyond fairy tales, and finally sprinkled with a healthy pinch of her own humorous and charming style.

I did read this one to my Changeling.  It was too old.  She loved it, though, for the story about the kitten and the pup.  She loved the narrative voice– the charming styles of speech peculiar to each character.  These are wonderful stories to read aloud, and a toddler responds to that.  And, one day, she’ll see the story’s place in the wider Realm of Story, and she’ll be charmed by that, too.  I hope by then she’ll have her own little bookroom, and will be able to roam around it, puzzling out the traditional and the new, and how exactly Eleanor Farjeon did talk a story into trying that little trick.  Maybe she’ll even try her hand at dancing with a few new stories of her own.

It’s been over a month I’ve been writing this blog, and making my own bookroom here has been more fun and more rewarding than I could have imagined.  So, well, I thought it was time to tell you about this blog’s namesake, and if anyone reading this wants to celebrate a month of The Children’s Bookroom, why don’t you find The Little Bookroom and read a story?  Then tell me what you think of it.  I’m off to my own bookroom to find some more material to talk about here.

The Fox and the Star

I have been hesitating to write about this book for months, since before I started this blog.  Let me tell you why, before I start talking about the book itself.

I love it.  The very moment I saw the ARC at (you guessed it) my favourite children’s book shop I knew I needed it.  I didn’t just want it– it was talking to me, it told me I needed it.  I immediately placed a pre-order for it, and when I came out in November and I finally got to read it from cover to cover I have to admit that I actually slept with it under my pillow the way I used to with fairy tales when I was a kid, hoping they would get into my dreams.  That’s how beautiful this book is.  And that’s why I hesitated to write: Where do I start?  What can I say to get across its loveliness?  Am I good enough to get it across?

Then I read it with the Changeling this morning and I realized I loved it in my way and she loved it in hers, and, while the book might be one step over from absolute perfection in its own way, no one’s looking to me for the perfect blog post.  The book didn’t need me to be perfect.  All I want to do here is share, as best I can, how truly I, Deborah, love this book.  And I’ll screw my courage to the sticking place and do my best, with all my uncertainties.

One uncertainty is that I don’t know is whether it’s a children’s book.  Judge for yourself.

The Fox and the Star

I do know that The Fox and the Star, written and illustrated by Coralie Bickford-Smith, is a work of art.  I mean that absolutely literally.  I said that with Madlenka’s Dog I stopped trying to protect it from the Changeling.  With this book, I keep it out of her reach, and when I read it with her I explain that this is one of the books I truly love and would like her to be careful about touching.  (Let me brag for a second: She’s such a good listener!  OK, I’m finished bragging now.)  The cover is beautifully designed.  I want the endpapers as wallpaper.  The illustrations are exquisite, each one lovely enough to be a print, or William Morris-style fabric (or more wallpaper– I love wallpaper).  The words, beautifully chosen in and of themselves, are integrated into the illustrations so that they make a seamless fabric.  Sometimes they’re set into the page like a tablet poised in the branches of a tree, sometimes each word is woven into the thorns of the forest, but, always, the words and the pictures suit each other.

Integration of text and image Fox and Star

And then there’s the story.  Or, perhaps, parable would be a better word.

I remember discussing with a professor of mine what the modern-day equivalent of the parable would be.  We agreed that children’s stories often work as parables: they’re stories in themselves, but often convey greater themes.  The Tale of Peter Rabbit would be a classic example.  He suggested Katie and the Smallest Bear as an even simpler and more exemplary option.  I think this book pares both the story and the themes and message so closely to the core elements that it makes an excellent example of a parable.

The story is about Fox and Star, and Fox’s love for Star.  The two of them, and all the others Fox encounters on his journey, are what they are, and need no other names.  Fox loves Star, his only friend, a friend he relies on for a soft glow of light at night in his dense, dark forest, where he walks only a little way from his den so that Star can light his path.  But one night he wakes and Star is gone.  (If you were reading the book, your eyes would fill with tears here.)  First, he huddles in his den, dreaming of Star’s return, lonely and scared, but finally beetles come seeking his den and Fox wakes up and eats.  Then he goes searching for Star.  He asks all those he meets about Star: the thorns, the rabbits, and the trees, but either they don’t know, won’t answer, or can’t hear him.  Finally, he comes to a lovely clearing and calls out his question.  Leaves fall, settling on the ground to tell him: “Look up beyond your ears.”  And when he looks up he sees a sky full of stars, and knows one of them, somewhere, is a star that once was his.  (If you were reading the book, not my measly summary, you’d be choking up right now.)  And Fox walks on through the forest.

Part of what scared me about writing up this book is that this is where you should say, “And this book’s message is X and teaches you Y and it’s so universal!”  I can’t do that to this book.  It does have broad, universal messages and themes and they’re beautiful.  If I put them into words it would diminish them.  To me, that’s why this is a parable: there are things that plain, sensible words can’t say.  There are things that you can only experience and feel through the interwoven, perfectly balanced mixture of words and images in this book.

I will tell you that this book came out while I was in a deep and miserable depression.  Frankly, it sucked.  It was horrible.  This was the first book I bought for myself rather than because I thought my daughter or husband would love it in a long, long time.  (As it turns out, of course, we all love it.)  The Fox’s lonely and courageous journey through a dense, dark forest, looking for beloved starlight spoke to me and got me to sleep at night and up in the morning.  It got me thinking about working in children’s books, too, because who wouldn’t love a world of books that can encompass everything from The Very Hungry Caterpillar to a book like this?  I will always love and be grateful to this book, and to the Fox’s courage.

As for my daughter?  She loves the Fox.  She loves watching the beetles crawl across the page, she loves the rabbits, she loves the leaves, but, most of all, she loves watching the Fox on his journey.  And when we come to the last page she bounces and beams: “He found the Star!  He found the Star!”  “Yes,” I answer, “he found so, so many stars!”

One day, I know, she’ll learn for herself why the Star had to go away so Fox could find so many stars– and what finding so many stars means to her, in her own words, and her own experience.  And maybe she’ll be able to tell me about her journey, and I can tell her mine.

Fox and leaves Fox and Star.jpg

Look, I don’t say this for every book, but: Go buy this one.  And let yourself cry when you read it, if you need to.  It’s too beautiful not to move you, and you’ll grow for it.  Walk through the forest, look up beyond your ears, and find all the stars.  Then tell me about it.

Note: I updated this with pictures taken from Coralie Bickford-Smith’s website with her very kind permission.  May I point out she also has a store where she sells prints?