What Our Heart Needs, Today and Everyday
January 24, 2019 § 4 Comments
On the morning of Christmas Eve, I drove down to the river to watch the sun rise. I hadn’t been able to sleep, my heart bruised from the words of a loved one the night before. As an adult, I have found the holidays to be such an intermingling of joy and sadness: a time of excitement and celebration, but also a time when the losses in my life assert themselves and leave me vulnerable.
I stood alone in the brisk-but-not-intolerable air, at the same spot along the Potomac where my son had taken me this past summer. A place he had picnicked with his sailing camp. A place he told me, while we were walking there, had “a bench perfect for you to sit on.” I wanted a place where I would feel love.
I felt that memory of love, but I also felt new love in the here and now around me. I didn’t lay eyes on another soul, but I was aware of life all around me. There were headlights from cars driving across the bridge. I witnessed the pink illumination of the Ferris Wheel across the river in Maryland. I watched as plane after plane descended over the Potomac, and my heart swelled to think of the people who had been flying all night, just to be with their loved ones for the holidays. I stood alone at the edge of the water, and I watched the sky come to life in a beautiful and reflective rendering of orange and yellow and blue. It did so without making a sound, as if it was the easiest thing in the world, and I felt like I was witnessing at once something uniquely personal and universally commonplace. I felt infinitely small in the most comforting of ways.
Since discovering this poem by the late Mary Oliver last week, I think it sums things up perfectly:
I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.
And so, I got back into my car and drove home to begin the 48 hours of Christmas Cheer.
Weeks later, after I read Corinna Luyken’s poetic new picture book, My Heart (Ages 5-10), I realized I had never told my children about my Christmas Eve sunrise. I had never spoken aloud the sadness I had felt. (Why should I? It had nothing to do with them.) How often do we edit our own thoughts or reactions so we can paint a brighter, sunnier picture for our children? This may be the greatest offering of My Heart: it presents an opportunity to talk with our children about the stormy greys, the lackluster greys, the muddy, murky greys.
Indeed, the book is a provocative dance of grey and yellow, of dark and light.
My Heart was born out of a poem Luyken wrote years ago. (Luyken has been quite the darling of my blog, beginning with her first book, The Book of Mistakes, and continuing with her illustrations for My Favorite Picture Book of 2018.) But while the poem’s words stayed more or less constant, the accompanying artwork bent and swayed and morphed over several years until it struck the right note. (If you like to geek out—that’s me!—on the process of picture book creation, read this fascinating interview with Luyken.) With its scratchy, smudgy look, the end result reminds me of the work of the late John Birmingham—a legend in the picture book world—who often evoked a similar “unfinished” look in his art, almost as if inviting us to insert our own selves and lives into his pictures. Luyken strikes a similarly intimate but universal tone here, while producing some of the most exquisite spreads I’ve encountered in a picture book.
My Heart is a musing on the way our heart feels at different times, “My heart is a window,/ my heart is a slide./ My heart can be closed/ or opened up wide.” Readers will be quick to notice the myriad of ways, much like in Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse, that Luyken nestles heart-shaped silhouettes into her illustrations. Inspired by her own love of collecting heart-shaped objects in the natural world, like rocks and shells, Luyken not only draws our attention to the omnipresence of this particular shape in the everyday, but also to the constant, comforting presence our own heart exerts, even as we experience tumultuous feelings.
The next few spreads of My Heart dip into these messier moments. Still talking about our heart (and never reaching for the platitudes): “Some days it’s a puddle./ Some days it’s a stain./ Some days it is cloudy/ and heavy with rain.” The rainy spread is one of only three where Luyken doesn’t use yellow to complement the grey. These are times when the darkness threatens to engulf, to block out the light. And yet, Luyken reminds us, even when facing down the darkness, our heart is with us, glimpsed here in the overlapping shapes of the black clouds.
But, like the sunrise each morning, the darkness is eventually eclipsed by light. With the next spread, Luyken slowly brings back the yellow—at first just a tiny heart-shaped bud in the ground, over which a child is bent (the same image as the book’s cover). “Some days it is tiny,/ but tiny can grow…/and grow…/and grow.” Another page turn reveals heart-shaped bursts of yellow radiating from a tree.
This pattern repeats twice more, as Luyken calls our attention to times in which our heart feels, for example, like “a fence between me and the world,” versus the reaffirming times when we invite others to help mend our hearts, or when we embrace our heart as a source of “light” and “guid[ance].”
My Heart can and will be read by children on many levels. It will reward multiple readings with deeper insights. But, regardless of where children are in their own lives, I expect they will not miss the vulnerability in these pages, a topic not often addressed in children’s picture books. There’s a refreshing rawness here. A reassurance of hope, a nod to the cyclic nature of emotions, but one that doesn’t gloss over or undersell the dark spots. A book which, when taken as a whole, actually balances the greys and yellows fairly equally…even if the yellow-dominant pages are be the ones we want to take with us.
My Heart ends with the empowering message that we are each the bosses of our emotional life. We may not be able to anticipate or control the feelings that come, but we do get to decide whether we want to open our heart to these feelings. Whether we want, in turn, to open ourselves to the possibility of connection. If we choose openness—even at our most vulnerable, even when we think no one is listening—we will never truly be alone. Even in our saddest, messiest moments, we are surrounded by a vast universe of hearts. If we welcome this infinite love, we may well find the soothing we crave. We may even return, once more, to joy.
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Review copy by Dial Books for Young Readers. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are above, although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!