How Will We Remember This L(o)st Year?
March 11, 2021 § 2 Comments
I’ve been accused of using these pages as a kind of glorified baby book, and if that’s true, I appreciate you indulging me. In the trappings of our busy-ness, we don’t take enough opportunities to pause and process our life experiences—the good and the bad, the big and the small—and I have found blogging to be (almost) as therapeutic as a conversation with a good girlfriend over a glass of wine.
But I would argue that children’s books themselves can be gateways to reflection—as much for us as for our kids. Sharing them offers a respite, a chance to connect with our little ones, while their content strips back unnecessary clutter, revealing something of life’s essentiality, its basic truths, through economies of words and pictures. Even when they’re not expressly representing our own experiences, children’s books reflect back the life taking place in and around us.
It has been exactly one year since I sat around a table with my daughter and her classmates to lead what would be our last in-person book club. Several of the children knew almost nothing about the coronavirus that would shut down their school—and life as they knew it—just twenty-four hours later. When I arrived to pick up my daughter the next day, teachers threw hastily gathered notebooks and supplies into the back of our car, and my daughter and her carpool group climbed into their seats looking shell-shocked. Some giggled nervously. One started crying.
How do we want to remember this last year—a year that took so much, that has produced a kind of cumulative weariness we’d like nothing more than to shed, but was also not without moments of profound beauty and growth?
As it turns out, I have the perfect book for memorializing this time, for helping children of all ages process what they’ve seen and felt, done and not done. LeUyen Pham’s astute and gracefully executed Outside, Inside (Ages 3-103) is one that might find its forever home on a shelf beside baby books and photo albums. A book our children might someday take down and share with their own kids—let me show you what it was like when “everybody who was outside…went inside.” Amidst the many new children’s books tackling the subject of lockdown, this one rises to the top. Many would have us believe it was all rainbows, but this one holds the sadness alongside the wonder, the uncertainty alongside the hope. Outside, Inside reminds us that a new day is dawning, but we will never forget how we got here.
Despite our isolation this past year, many of us led—are still leading—very similar lives. Indeed, one of the reasons Outside, Inside works so well is that it presents a collective experience that most of us will recognize as our own, while simultaneously acknowledging a different reality for those on the frontline, like essential workers, or those who lost loved ones to the virus.
In the spirit of that collective experience—and since we’ve established that these pages are a dumping ground for my own memories—I want to share a bit about our year, the good and the bad. (Then we’ll get to the book, I promise.)
It was the year my kids grew right out of their clothes, but kept wearing them, either because it seemed pointless to bother with alternatives, or because we were all in denial that time wasn’t stopping just because we had to.
It was the year my kids mastered Powerpoint, Zoom, Google Sheets, and Scratch. When the lingo they adopted for a video game called Among Us migrated to the dinner table (“you’re so sus, bruh”).
It was the year they asked to have sleepovers with one another because they were suddenly each other’s best (and only) friend. (Also worst enemy.)
It was the year of bikes and newfound independence, of the joy of returning home with little accounting for hours spent uncovering new alleyways and muddy creek beds.
It was the year my kids professed to hating hikes—what they called “forced marches through the woods”—though their flushed cheeks and skipping feet sometimes said otherwise.
It was the year my kids advocated for themselves, each time they insisted a friend wear a mask. It was the year my daughter taught herself to play “Imagine” on the ukulele, while my son made a cheese-and-cracker dispenser out of plywood and old toy motors because why not.
It was the year we marveled at the birds, the buds, the slant of light on our couch in the late afternoon. It was the year we wondered if spring and fall had always been this miraculous, only we hadn’t been paying attention. (Winter still sucked.)
It was the year we reclaimed lazy weekend mornings. It was the year we read more than ever. And sometimes read nothing at all.
It was the year we became a TV family. And because we were new at this, we let our kids watch wildly inappropriate shows, like Glee, which they will never stop watching.
It was the year we cried from frustration and fear, from missed vacations and absent family members, from the mere thought of having to unload the dishwasher again.
It was the year we realized that hours and hours spent bent over a jigsaw puzzle does not, in fact, help you put the world back together—though the act of trying is momentarily calming.
It was the year we baked. A lot.
All of the above, directly or indirectly, is present in the pages of LeUyen Pham’s book, which begins, “Something strange happened on an unremarkable day just before the season changed. Everybody who was OUTSIDE…”
Only a black cat remains outside. We know he belongs to the young girl on the cover, but as a literary device, this cat becomes our eyes and ears for exploring the world beyond the girl’s shuttered brownstone. As we pan out, we discover this same phenomenon is happening “all over the world,” with everyone stuck inside, waiting.
“Well, almost everyone.” Now we turn to those who had to carry on as usual (albeit with hurdles of sanitization and face shields). In a single spread, we see paramedics loading stretchers into ambulances, fire engines and garbage trucks driving by, and masked grocery workers ringing up people at the corner market.
In one of the most powerful spreads—almost Richard Scarry-like in its attention to detail—we see snapshots of inside a hospital, from the frenzied activity of an operating rooms to a patient hooked up to a ventilator. We observe a training session on new safety protocol, an exhausted health care worker in a break room, and a man holding up a sign thanking doctors for saving his wife’s life. Careful observers will note the presumption of death in the picture of an empty bed, beside a nurse holding vigil.
Once again, we move outside, where things are quieter than usual. Where, in the absence of cars, the wind can be heard rustling the leaves. Inside, families bake, make music, and watch TV. “Some of us worked a little, some of us worked a lot…and some of us couldn’t work at all. We all felt a little different.”
By now, much like the actual experience of quarantine, the story settles into a predictable pattern, alternating between outside and inside, though with fresh details and perspectives on each page. Nearly everything will be familiar to children, from the swing sets that “sat still” to the “birthdays without parties” (the picture shows cars driving by a child’s house with balloons and signs).
Pham acknowledges feelings of anxiety head on, with families doing yoga, praying, and “trying to breathe”—always with an emphasis on weathering the storm together.
Still, even as we waited, time did not stop. Outside, “the world kept growing,” and inside, too, children grew taller. There was also growth we couldn’t see: “We were all changing a tiny bit inside.”
Towards the end, Pham poses the question, “why did we all go inside?” She doesn’t answer with specifics of the pandemic; neither does she get into politics. Rather, she frames the decision within our larger communities: “[M]ostly because everyone knew it was the right thing to do.” This is what I love best about this book: not only does it represent the collective experience of the past year, but it appeals to our common humanity.
Outside, Inside ends with a gorgeous gatefold that speaks to the hope of another spring. When the book first came out this past January, spring didn’t look like it was going to bring much change. But an increasing vaccine rollout has given us reason to think that we, in the very season of renewal, will be able to reclaim some fluidity between our inside and outside lives. That we may gather. That we may hug. That we may take up sports. That we may enjoy this life made possible by the work and sacrifice of so many.
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Review copy from Roaring Book Press. All opinions are my own. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases through the links above, although I prefer we also shop local and support our communities when we can.