Healing in Color
March 31, 2022 § 4 Comments
Two days before we were scheduled to move across the country, when my oldest was just shy of three years old, he broke his leg. My husband and I had left him with my in-laws outside Chicago, while we dashed back into the city to close on our house and run a few final errands. As I sat in the chair at the hairdresser, where my biggest concern was whether I’d ever find someone to cut my hair again, my phone rang. My mother in law wanted me to know that while my son and our dog had been playing, the dog had stepped on his leg. Now he couldn’t walk. They were on their way to the ER.
Did I mention I was pregnant with our second and, owing to a recurrence of pelvic joint disorder, could barely walk myself? I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that a not-quite three year old with a full leg cast can’t exactly use crutches.
Fast forward 48 hours, when my husband moved to Washington, D.C. without us, and I spent the next month bunking in with my in-laws, while they took turns carrying my son and I hobbled along behind them. In the meantime, my husband toured possible places for us to live and sent us blurry pictures. My son demanded to read his Curious George books so many times that my mother-in-law and I nearly came to blows over whether a poorly behaved monkey was the best role model for a human boy. I ended up in the hospital with a kidney infection. It was…an interesting time.
And yet, when I think about my boy through all of this, my recollection is that he was often ridiculously happy. Happy to spend the first few days on the couch, as friends sent care packages and he got to watch more shows than he’d dreamed possible. Happy to spend the next few weeks swinging on porch swings, blowing bubbles, and doing loops on a local antique train. Happy his cast was the brightest shade of green, his favorite color since he was old enough to talk. Happy for bonus time with his biggest fans.
I’ll always remember him holding court on the patio, where we ate every meal that month. (Just like I’ll always remember how grateful I was for my mother-in-law’s cooking.)
But I also remember that, even as he seemed unstoppable when the cast became a walking boot, and when we left my in-laws to visit my own grandmother and tear up and down the beach along Lake Erie, he was surprisingly hesitant when he finally got his boot off. The heavy, itchy accoutrements may have been gone, but they’d left him a stranger in his body. I remember saying, “It’s OK! Come on! Your leg is as good as new!” And he would look down and continue to walk a little funny.
How tempting it is—especially for us parents—to gloss over our children’s trauma. As if, by focusing on the shiny, perfect future, we can pretend the suffering never happened.
In her gentle, insightful new picture book, Out on a Limb (Ages 4-8), author Jordan Morris speaks to the role of courage and patience in the healing process, as a girl recovers from a broken leg, moving from the novelty of sporting a cast to the awkwardness of being without it. Substitute a green cast for a yellow one, and the similarities between this girl’s story and my son’s are plentiful, including an inter-generational component. But you don’t need experience in the broken bones department to enjoy this book, especially when you factor in Charlie Mylie’s gorgeous graphite art, rendered in a largely black-and-white palette with intentional splashes of color. Many children will spark to this story of reclaiming childhood joy in the aftermath of interruption.
The story actually begins on the book’s endpapers, even before the title page, though it will be some time before we understand the connection to Lulu and her broken leg. What we see are illustrated panels of a man mailing a yellow envelope, after enclosing a picture of a bird with the message, “Love, Grandpa. P.S. See you soon, Lubird!” Sequences of wordless panels like these reappear a few times during the story, as the journey of the yellow envelope unfolds.
When we meet Lulu, she is sitting on her bed, a writing desk on her lap, a lollipop in her mouth, and her yellow-casted leg stretched out before her. Readers will have to wait until the story’s end for a hint as to how Lulu broke her leg, which gives them plenty of pages to speculate. In the meantime, the emphasis is on the adjustment to life in a cast. “So far, Lulu mused, this broken leg isn’t so bad.”
Indeed, the initial days of the cast are full of novelty, including a “sympathy trove” of gifts, finding creative ways of doing ordinary things, and an eager audience at school for stories about ambulance rides and hospital ice cream. (“Lulu only embellished a little.”)
It turns out Lulu has broken not one but two leg bones—the tibia and fibula—so there’s plenty of room on the bright yellow cast for decorations.
As the days wear on, though, the excitement is eclipsed by boredom, nighttime itchiness, and restlessness.
We check in again with the yellow envelope, which initially falls out of a mail carrier’s bag and is now riding the wind down and above city streets.
After six weeks—midway through the book—Lulu gets her cast off. But while her teddy bear looks shiny and new without the miniature solidarity cast Lulu had made for it, her own leg looks naked and oddly skinny. Instead of the joy and relief she expects, she feels nervous and uncertain. “She wondered if it would break again.” Up until now the yellow accents in the artwork have been sparse—pops of levity and brightness on the page. Here, on this spread, the yellow usurps most of the space, the color more oppressive than optimistic.
Over the next few days, Lulu feels the loss of her cast acutely, especially as others pressure her to return to her old ways of doing things. We observe her peering tentatively around the front door as the neighbor kids invite her to play kickball. She keeps a yellow rainboot on her foot to climb the stairs. “She wanted to be Lulu with a yellow cast and she wanted her leg to be safe inside.”
Not even Grandpa, who finally arrives for his visit, can persuade her to join him atop the tower at their favorite park. (They do blow bubbles together, just like my son and his Nonno.) Nor can he persuade her that the letter he mailed—which Lulu has never received—isn’t lost forever. “[S]ome things just need a little extra time,” he tells her.
Meanwhile, the pictures tell us that said letter is currently in the beak of a bird, a bird not far from Lulu’s house. When the bird deposits the letter in his nest, Lulu catches sight of the bright yellow envelope. But that’s not the only color on the page. Green has been slowing seeping into the pages, on and around this tree, a signal of new growth that mirrors the changes taking place in Lulu’s own body.
Lulu looks at the envelope, high up in her climbing tree, and she thinks again about how she wants to be her “fearless and fast” self, even while knowing that “bad things could happen.” Maybe, just maybe, that envelope is intriguing enough to climb up and grab it. Maybe its silence is the invitation she has been waiting for. A chance to heal on her own timeline.
I’ll leave you in suspense as to how the next few pages play out. Suffice it to say that Grandpa’s letter is a great deal more than we saw in those front endpapers.
How do we move through the world, even while knowing bad things can happen? How do we walk the line between keeping ourselves safe and listening to our hearts? Out on a Limb does something better than offering up specific answers to these questions: it lets young readers know it’s OK to ask them.
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Book gifted by Abrams Books for Young Readers. All opinions are my own. If you’re in the Alexandria area, please consider shopping at the beautiful Old Town Books, where I am the kids’ buyer!