For the Child Who Will Re-Write the Rules (2015 Holiday Gift Guide Kicks Off!)
December 6, 2015 § 3 Comments
I realize I’m late to the game with my Holiday Gift Guide, and I apologize. Lest you think I was taking a few weeks off from children’s books, I assure you that is rarely the case. Rather, I was drafting book lists for many of the parents in my children’s school, in preparation for our annual Book Fair (my favorite fundraising event of the year!). In other words, I’ve been reading even MORE than usual. And now, all of you will benefit! Over the next ten days, I will be posting several installments of my annual Gift Guide, with recommendations of picture books, chapter books, and non-fiction for all the young book lovers in your life. I’ve saved singing the praises of many of my 2015 favorites until now, because they have undeniable Gift Power. It has been hard to stay quiet all these weeks and months, when I’ve wanted to scream, GET YOUR CHILDREN’S HANDS ON THESE BOOKS RIGHT NOW!
I’m going to begin today by telling you about two of the most gorgeous picture books published this year. And I mean, Holy-Moley-Mind-Blowing Material. These are books whose pages invite endless study; books whose paintings draw us in so completely that we forget everything that’s happening around us. They are books that challenge the traditional relationship between author and reader, between artist and spectator. They invite us to participate fully in what we are seeing and to make our own meaning out of what we find.
We begin with Pamela Zagarenski’s The Whisper (Ages 5-10), about a red-hooded, rosy-checked girl, who borrows an anthology of stories from her teacher for the night. On the walk home from school, the words spill out from between the book’s covers and are caught in the net of a shifty fox.
If that seems surreal, it is. Some of you will remember my fascination with Zagarenski (Sleep Like a Tiger was a pick for my 2013 Gift Guide and went on to earn a Caldecott Honor). Her mixed-media art is like nothing else in print today: an evocative hybrid of the real and the dreamlike. It’s rich on symbolism—with crowns, teacups, wheels, and yellow orbs making appearances across all her books. There’s an element of mystery and randomness and bizarreness to Zagarenski’s art that is positively fascinating to the elementary child, whose own imagination is beginning to call to her in everything she does.
When the little girl gets home, her eyes fill with disappointed tears upon discovering that the book has no words. It’s just not a book of stories, without any words, she thought. But a whisper—which may or may not come from the fox who watches through the window—is carried to her across the evening breeze:
“Dear little girl, don’t be disappointed.
You can imagine the words.
You can imagine the stories.
Start with a few simple words and imagine from there.
Remember: beginnings, middles, and ends of
stories can always be changed and imagined differently.
There are never any rules, rights, or wrongs in imagining—
imagining just is.”
In the seven exquisite double-page spreads that follow, the little girl sits at the perimeter of each story and tries her creativity at making up something from what she sees. What we as readers get are the girl’s first few sentences, followed by an ellipse, which invites us to fill in the rest.
I won’t lie: this doesn’t come easily to our heroine, and it doesn’t come easily to our children. The first time I shared this book with my kids, they protested: “Come on, Mommy, you make it up.” We settled on my adding a sentence and then each of them adding a sentence—until, eventually, I couldn’t shut them up. The next time we read the book, they quickly fell back on the story lines we’d previously created. “Can we think up something new?” I gently pushed. And we did. Much like our heroine—who eventually “drifted off into a dream-world woven out of the threads and the pictures and the stories she had imagined”—we were equally exhilarated and exhausted by the end.
The animation in the little girl’s voice, when she rushes to greet her teacher the next day (“I have so many stories to tell you!”), is the same precious, unadulterated joy that makes our job as teachers and parents the best in the world.
Joy—tentative at first and exuberant by the end—also graces the pages of The Wonder (Ages 5-10), where British author-illustrator Faye Hanson makes her awe-inspiring picture-book debut. The story stars a boy “whose head is filled with wonder.” That’s a nice way of saying that his head is stuck in the clouds. What this looks like to the adults in his life—to his mother (who begrudgingly buttons his jacket while the boy stares off into space), to the bus driver (as the boy bumps into fellow passengers), to the science teacher (when the boy knocks over a beaker)—is tardiness, distraction, and messiness. “Wake up, daydreamer!” “Pay attention!” the adults berate the boy time and time again.
(I’ll admit to feeling more than a tinge of guilt each time I read this story to my daughter. Emily—always singing to herself, always with eyes darting everywhere but where she is supposed to be looking—is the epitome of Distracted. And it frequently Drives. Me. Batty.)
Yet, this story demonstrates the very power and importance of wonder. As it turns out, the boy’s head is in the clouds because he is literally thinking about the clouds. Puzzling out who makes them. Or where the birds are flying to. Or how the crossing guard’s sign would taste. Or what the world’s best playground would look like. Or any number of things that escape the adults in his life.
It’s only when his art teacher presents him with a blank piece of paper that the boy begins to make sense of the disjointed images in his head, to weave and combine them into intensely detailed, brilliantly colorful, fantastical scenes.
Savvy readers will recognize elements from the early pages in the five glorious double-page spreads that make up the middle of the book. This time, there are no words to start us off: we are getting a privileged glimpse into the imagination of a child, and the conclusions are ours alone to draw.
Hanson’s story, by way of the imagination, may venture into the fantastical, but it ends fully grounded in reality. If we initially assume that these awesome spreads represent what the boy puts down on his sheet of paper, we later realize our mistake. After all, neither children nor adults rarely get things down on paper exactly as they see them in their minds. I love that the story ends with the boy’s actual artwork, which looks like something my children or your children might make.
What this books shows us is that the internal life of the imagination is richer and meatier and more brilliant than the outside world realizes. It is our children’s Greatest Gift to the World to grow up and unleash their creativity—to challenge the way we do things, they way we think, the way we define success.
Both The Whisper and The Wonder ask us to think about the way we seek out and decipher meaning. This kind of meaning-making from picture books—where someone isn’t handing us a straightforward narrative—can initially be as intimidating to parents as it is to children (OMG how long is this going to take to read?!). But I venture to suggest that it’s important work. It’s important to encourage our children to think outside the box, to interpret and re-interpret, to make meaning in less obvious ways.
I think about the creativity that will be required to bring peace and healing to our world, and I can’t help but think of these books.
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Review copies provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Candlewick respectively. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!