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 Stories, This Is Not a Picture Book!, This is Sadie, The 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 Books, by Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston, recently published by Candlewick Press.
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 Wonderland, Beauty 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.