When is a Stone a Story?
September 12, 2019 § 4 Comments
If we want our children to entertain different perspectives when they get to middle or high school—to become critical thinkers and contributors—then they should have opportunities from an early age to consider that there is more than one way to see the world.
Picture book author-illustrator Brendan Wenzel is making something of a name for himself when it comes to creating books for young children about perspective and perception (his groundbreaking debut, They All Saw a Cat, received a Caldecott honor). His newest, A Stone Sat Still (Ages 4-7), similarly rendered with richly textured, mixed-media art and spare, poetic language, stole my heart from the moment I opened it (do yourself a favor and remove the jacket cover, because WOW). Even my children, well outside the target age, were captivated. This is visual storytelling at its best, where every page asks the reader to engage: to wonder, question, and understand.
A Stone Sat Still is about a single grey rock, existing at once in a single moment and along a continuum of time. The opening passage, which establishes the physical location of the stone at the edge of a marshland, serves as a kind of anchor and is repeated four times throughout the book, reminding us of the stone’s constancy in an ever-changing world.
A stone sat still
with the water, grass and dirt
and it was as it was
where it was in the world.
That the stone exists is never questioned, but how the stone exists for the many different creatures who inhabit its surroundings changes all the time. Here, text and illustration work in perfect tandem, the former providing single-word descriptors—“and the stone was dark,” “and the stone was bright,” “and the stone was loud,” “and the stone was quiet”—and the latter giving us visual clues to make sense of these metaphors. In the shadow of the sun, for example, the stone appears dark to a chipmunk nibbling a nut; but beneath a full moon, the stone is alight beneath an owl’s claws. When a seabird smashes a shell on the stone, it’s loud; but when a snake basks in the sun atop it, the stone is quiet.
We discover that the physical orientation of an animal can make for its unique experience. The stone might feel “rough” against the soft, amorphous body of a slug but considerably “smooth” to a prickly porcupine. To an enormous moose, the stone feels like nothing more than a “pebble,” whereas to a tiny beetle looking up from the stone’s base, it’s a daunting “hill.” (The other day, I took the kids to a wetlands sanctuary where they’ve been going since they were little. As we neared the end of our loop, the kids ran ahead to “climb the boulder” framing the visitor center. I found them a few minutes later, standing in front of a brick ledge smaller than them. “I remember it being so much bigger than this,” my daughter said.)
As the book progresses, the figurative language becomes slightly more abstract, kindling even richer discussions at home or in the classroom. How is the stone “a marker?” Well, we can deduce by the geese flying overhead that they are using it as a landmark in their migration. When a trio of otters gathers around the stone with freshly-caught fish, the stone is suddenly a “kitchen.” And when a crab casts interesting shadows on the stone’s façade, the stone becomes “a story.”
In one of my favorite illustrations, the stone is described as “a maze.” Careful inspection reveals that a snail—the same one which has been slowly but steadily making its way up and over the stone since the book’s beginning—has left a sticky, meandering trail behind. The markings are invisible to all except a tiny red insect, which stands in the snail’s wake and must now navigate a circuitous path to avoid getting stuck.
The snail is a clue to another revelation in the book, with respect to the passage of time. That the stone makes its impact known in a “blink” or “an age” depends again on the beholder. In the final few pages, we watch as the physical environment exerts its force on the stone in enormously consequential but slow-moving ways, owing to rising sea levels. The stone becomes “an island,” then “a wave,” and then only “a memory” for those land and sky animals who used to call it home. In its new place at the bottom of the sea, the stone attracts an entirely new set of creatures, like a sea snail, to climb and explore it. We are comforted by the fact that the “stone still sits in the world,” but it’s also a somber reminder that one’s gain often comes at the expense of another’s loss.
At the same time that A Stone Sat Still calls attention to the way our individual orientations or emotions or motivations can influence perspective and perception, it also reminds our children that the ego is just one tiny play in the great, shifting game that is the Natural World. Indeed, what we’re left with above all else when we close this book is pure, unadulterated awe.
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