2016 Gift Guide (No. 1): My Favorite Book of the Year
December 1, 2016 § 10 Comments
In the past, I’ve kicked off my holiday gift guide with my favorite book of the year. This is hard enough on a normal year, but by all accounts, 2016 has been an exceptional year for children’s literature. I have a wealth of extraordinary books—picture books that will take your breath away, chapter books with heroes and heroines for the ages—to tell you about over the next few weeks, in hopes of satisfying everyone on your shopping list. Trust me when I say that this year’s books will make you the gift-giving hero you’ve always dreamed of being.
But, in light of these past few tumultuous months and the uncertainty that lies ahead, I need to put at the very top of my favorites a book that reminds all of us—young and old—that it is possible to find some quiet amidst the noise.
On the day before Thanksgiving, in the late afternoon, my daughter and I took a walk to a small nature reserve near our house. In anticipation of our extended family’s impending arrival and the holiday weekend before us, our hearts were full. We held hands, belted out “This Land is Your Land,” and skipped our feet. I tried to push aside the inevitable pangs of nostalgia, since it is never lost on me that it won’t be long until my little girl grows past the age of holding hands and singing in public with her mother.
There we were, making a racket and coming upon the entrance to the park, when Emily suddenly stopped and dropped her voice to a whisper. “Shhhh, Mommy, listen.” She paused. “It’s completely still.” I stopped mid-verse and joined her in listening to what indeed seemed like a total absence of sound. For a moment, it felt like we were the only living things in the world. Under a colorless sky, the light was dim, the fallen leaves had lost their luster, and the landscape around us seemed to be holding its breath.
But then we listened harder and we heard them: the sound of a squirrel tunneling through a pile of dried leaves; the sound of a leaf blower in the distance; two children shouting at each other down by the stream. Once again, the noise of the world commenced around us–only I felt different now, and I could tell that Emily did, too. That moment of stillness had wrapped itself around us, bonding us to its warm embrace. It seemed to mark the end of one thing and the beginning of another. Emily ran ahead down the dirt path to join the children at the stream. And I hung back, marveling at the few trees that still held onto their leaves, as if for dear life.
“Without silence, sound would be meaningless.” So insisted the contemporary Japanese composer, Toru Takemitsu, who it turns out is the inspiration behind Katrina Goldsaito’s sublime new children’s picture book, The Sound of Silence (Ages 5-10). The book’s afterward tells us that Takemitsu was a neighbor to Goldsaito’s father in Tokyo, and that once the musician had claimed his favorite sound was “the sound of silence.”
How can silence have a sound, and how does one go about finding it? These are the questions that lie at the heart of The Sound of Silence, a story about a Japanese boy exploring and observing his beloved Tokyo.
As he walks to and from school, young Yoshio is fascinated by the “symphony hall” of sounds surrounding him. There’s the “zaa-zaa” of the rain on his umbrella, the “kiiii” of the breaking cars, and his own escalating giggles at the sound his boots make “squishing and squashing through the puddles.”
On this particular day, one sound stands out above the rest. “High and then low, squeaky and vibrating,” it’s the sound of a koto player tuning her instrument.
“Sensei,” Yoshio said,
“do you have a favorite sound?”
“The most beautiful sound,”
the koto player said,
“is the sound of ma, of silence.”
“Silence?” Yoshio asked.
But the koto player just smiled a
mysterious smile and went back to her playing.
What follows is a series of attempts by the boy to pinpoint this elusive “sound of silence” in his daily life. During recess, for instance, he escapes to the bamboo grove at the edge of the playground. Instead of silence, he hears only the “takeh-takeh-takeh” as the wind “banged [the] stalks together.”
Later, he looks for it at home. “It wasn’t in the dining room, where there was always the sound of chopsticks and slurping and chewing and swallowing.” (Don’t I know it.)
“Silence wasn’t in the bath, where even his toes made noise and the little droplets of water kept dripping off his nose.”
Each of these attempts combines to create a mesmerizing portrait of the city of Tokyo, with its array of vivid colors and an at once dizzying yet ordered backdrop of black-haired figures, flashing billboards, high-speed trains, exotic food stands, tatami floor mats, arbor-lined boulevards, bicycling school girls, stray dogs, and sharp-cornered buildings.
(My daughter was ecstatic to catch the reference to the Anime figure, Totoro, on a wall calendar in the boy’s classroom, a nod to her favorite children’s movie right now—and another must for your holiday list.)
Illustrator Julia Kuo achieves all this with digitally-colored pen drawings—inspired by her own memories of growing up in Taipei and visiting Tokyo—and the result is absolutely stunning. The pictures have a saturated flatness that feels fresh, modern, and almost tactile. It strikes me how infrequently we see Asian life depicted in our American children’s books. If this book doesn’t spark an interest in traveling to East Asia (or collecting contemporary Japanese art) I don’t know what will. Start saving your pennies.
Kuo’s illustrations may be realistic, but there is also something sacred at work here. It’s as if the grit and grime of everyday life is lifted, leaving behind purely beauty and marvel. One might also say that the pictures themselves transcend the very sounds that they showcase, much like young Yoshio is attempting to do.
Our protagonist continues to strike out in his quest to identify the sound of silence. At bedtime he falls asleep while straining to hear the quiet, and he wakes in the morning to the sound of barking dogs. He decides to arrive early at school and sit in his empty classroom. And it is there that he finally hears the ma. Only he doesn’t hear it in the emptiness of the room, as we might be expecting. He hears it in the book that he’s reading, in the middle of a page, at a part that he loves so much, it makes him momentarily forget his surroundings.
No sounds of footsteps, no people chattering, no radios, no bamboo, no kotos being tuned. In that short moment, Yoshio couldn’t even hear the sound of his own breath.
Everything felt still inside him.
Peaceful, like the garden after it snowed.
Like feather-stuffed futons drying in the sun.
Be still my heart! Are you getting this? He hears the silence IN A BOOK. The epiphany comes WHILE HE IS READING. (Now you see why I had to pick this book as my favorite.) What a powerful message for our children to hear: a correlation between reading and inner peace, between reading and mindfulness. Losing ourselves in a book allows us to transcend the scuffle of everyday life at the same time that it brings us squarely back to ourselves. It is no wonder that, for me, reading aloud to my children has always been the surest way to tune out everything else and embrace what matters.
Yet, for all its accolades on the subject of reading, The Sound of Silence is ultimately concerned with a broader message. In the moment that follows Yoshio’s mid-page pause, he realizes with astonishment that the sound of silence “had been there all along,” in each one of the encounters leading to this one.
It had been there between the thumps of his boots when he ran; when the wind stopped for just a moment in the bamboo grove; at the end of his family’s meal, when everyone was happy and full; after the water finished draining from his bath; before the koto player’s music began—and hovering in the air, right after it ended.
It was between and underneath every sound.
And it had been there all along.
(Notice how, as soon as the boy stops engaging with the chaos around him, all the colors except those on Yoshio fade into muted greys and browns, an artistic choice which is echoed on the extraordinary wrap-around cover illustration as well.)
Yesterday, I finally shared this book with Emily. I had purchased it weeks ago, but somehow it hadn’t seemed like the right time. After we finished it, I asked her if she remembered how, just a few days earlier, she has hushed me on our walk so that I could listen to the stillness with her. “Do you think we were hearing the sound of silence, before our ears started picking up all those other sounds?” I asked.
My six year old—as six year olds are prone to do—amazed me with her response.
“I think if you’re quiet all the time, you don’t notice the sound of silence. But If you’re loud and you pause, then you hear it.”
Yes, we must heed the pauses.
Our family is anything but quiet. My son seems only to speak at a decibel reserved for Shakespearean actors. My daughter sings aloud her inner dialogue as she moves from one activity to the next. Our old house creaks and moans so much at night, I wonder how it can still be standing.
And yet, I have recently begun listening for the sound of silence that lies “between and underneath” this cacophony that is my life. I am starting to see that this is an effort worth undertaking.
During this holiday season—and in the year that follows—my wish for all of us is that we occasionally hear the silence at the top of our inhalations. That we heed the pause between the verses of carolers and the shouts of protesters, the stillness between the crunch of leaves and the scrape of the snow shovel. And that, when we’re lucky enough to hear it, that we relish this ma—before moving on to embrace the symphony around us.
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Book published by Little, Brown and Company. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!