February 20, 2020 § 4 Comments
Since losing my grandmother two weeks ago, I haven’t been able to shake my sadness at the realization that my memories with her are now finite. For nearly 45 years, I have been collecting memories with her, savoring them on shelves in my heart. Memories of orange-red sunsets on the beach; of her impossibly large hibiscus plant; of earth-shattering thunder claps which sent me flying out of bed, always to find her calmly watching the electrical show from the screened porch (“Have you ever seen anything so beautiful, Meliss?”). There were jigsaw puzzles which kept us up late into the night, always after vowing she wouldn’t “get involved”; prank calls she encouraged me to make to her friends; Thursday night Bingo games at her golf club, where to be seated next to her felt like basking in the presence of a celebrity. I can still hear her voice like it was yesterday, those giddy eruptions of “Goody goody goody!”
If the right book, read at the right time, can cradle you in its embrace, then Deborah Marcero’s new picture book, In a Jar (Ages 4-8), is doing that for me. (My kids are pretty smitten, too.) It is the most exquisite, childlike, visual depiction of memory-making I’ve encountered, as well as a reminder that the process of collecting memories can be as beautiful as the memories themselves. While it’s not about death, it is a story of loss—the loss of a friend who moves away—and how we re-frame the world in light of departure. It’s affirming and hopeful and the kind of lovely that surrenders you to its pages.
If I’m being honest, I was hooked from the very first spread, whose color palette is evocative of Leo the Late Bloomer, Robert Kraus’ 1970s picture book which warmed its way into my heart at an early age and has (apparently) never left. An indication of just how powerful memory can be: that the mere juxtaposition of color—here, yellow, orange, and a mossy green—can elicit a disarming response. That said, one of the most alluring things about In a Jar is that Marcero invokes a different color palette with nearly every page turn, surprising us with different sensations—much like our young protagonist, who discovers the world is ripe with seasonal memories.
“Llewellyn was a collector. He collected things in jars.” (The name Llewellyn also had me from the start. Can you think of a book with a character named Llewellyn? No, you cannot. And it’s infinitely fun to pronounce.) This tall-eared, anthropomorphized bunny is what we hope for in our own children: he’s a Great Observer of the world. As he ventures beyond his home, he is forever collecting physical reminders of his days: the leaves which rain down around him; feathers and shells; a heart-shaped stone. “When he held a jar and peered inside, Llewellyn remembered all the wonderful things he had seen and done.”
On the one hand, this seems simple enough, perhaps even something we have watched our own children do. But this isn’t a literal story, and Llewellyn himself is anything but ordinary. Llewellyn fits a lot more into his jars than physical treasures. The first night he meets Evelyn, he scoops up lake water in a jar—glowing “tart cherry syrup” from the setting sun—and offers it to the other bunny. “And to her surprise, it glowed through the night with the memory of that sunset.”
Llewellyn and Evelyn begin spending their days together, collecting things both “hard to hold”—rainbows, ocean sounds, and “the wind just before the snow falls”—and things “you might not think would even fit in a jar,” like the “newness of spring.” With each season, the quiet friendship between the two bunnies blossoms.
Marcero varies her page layouts, interspersing single spreads with sequential frames and piquing our visual curiosity at every turn. We feast on the color swashes and pause at the fine line details. We peer into the jars, each more enticing than the next. We backtrack to see where in a previous picture a jar’s contents originated. We look at the bountiful landscapes and wonder what we ourselves would want as a remembrance.
At times, even Llewellyn and Evelyn are drawn inside the frames of a jar, a visual reminder that the contents of their memory jars are inextricably linked to the connection they felt in those moments.
Then comes the day when Evelyn’s family moves away. Look at the way in which Evelyn’s ears, through the back window of the car, mimic the direction of the trees and the birds, all tugging her away from her dear friend.
What does grief feel like? “With Evelyn gone, Llewellyn’s heart felt like an empty jar.”
How do we move forward in the wake of grief? For Llewellyn, it’s doing what he does best. It’s going back out into the bountiful world and filling more jars. Even if it’s not the same. Even if he has to do it alone once more. A picture of resilience, our Llewellyn. Like all those young at heart, he knows instinctively how to find the good and playful and beautiful again.
Fortunately, Evelyn is not dead, only living far away in the big city. One night during a meteor shower, Llewellyn figures out a way he can still share a piece of himself with Evelyn and she with him. Jars in care packages can bridge the distance between them. The two can no longer make magic together, but they can still make it for one another. Re-imagined pen pals, if you will.
While Llewellyn is out in the world collecting things to send to Evelyn, he inadvertently opens himself to the possibility of a new relationship. When “a little boy named Max” appears in the woods, Llewellyn is there, ready with an “extra jar.” Even in his grief, Llewellyn is paving the way for someone new with whom he can experience life together.
I like to think our hearts are like the shelves in Llewellyn’s house, stacked high with colorful, interesting, funny, tantalizing memories, ones we can occasionally dust off and admire, ones whose magic won’t fade if we tend to it with love. And I like to think, even with all these memories, that we’ll be willing and able to build more shelves when the right moment arrives. Maybe we’ll worry that these new shelves won’t be filled the same way, their collections like nothing we’ve imagined, but we will build them all the same. We’ll walk forth, ready with our empty jars, and we’ll think, oh goody, goody, goody.
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Review copy from Penguin Putnam. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links, although I prefer we all shop local when we can!