Saturday, October 31, 2009

Beyond the Veil

This Sunday at the Fredericton Playhouse, Quebec dance company Bouge de là will be performing a choreographed version of Old Thomas and the Little Fairy, the 2000 picture book by Dominique Jolin, illustrated by Stephane Poulin.

I've got my tickets. Last Saturday, as a tie-in to the upcoming performance, the Fredericton Public Library hosted a reading of the picture book. The audience mainly comprised the 5 and under set while parents and grandparents sat in the seating at the back. Loralie Boyle from the children's department led the children through a series of actions wherein they mimicked the ocean and various creatures within it. She then read the book accompanied by Alex Bailey on guitar. The combination of words and music was mesmerizing. Yet, how could any reading of this book not draw the listener in? The themes of life and death, love and loss, and anger and redemption flicker behind this deceptively simple tale about an old man who nurses a fragile, ailing fairy back to health.

This book got me to thinking about the sub-genre of children's books that carry a strong undertow of maturity and meaning, books that many would argue are not children's books at all--except for the astonishing fact that many children love them deeply and come back to them time and again.

In our house, three such books have become obsessive favourites:

Margaret Wise Brown's The Important Book is nothing more than a series of highly descriptive prose poems. It begins with a simple object:
"The important thing
about a spoon is
that it you eat with it."

Each page then describes a different object or phenomenon--an apple, snow, wind, a shoe--in an effort to crystallize its essence. The illustrations by Leonard Weisgard are simple and suggestive. They politely step back and allow the cadence and visual images provided by the words to explode inside the mind of the young reader.

The last page of the book moves into the metaphysical:
"The important thing about you is
that you are you.
It is true that you were a baby,
and you grew,
and now you are a child,
and will grow,
into a man
or into a woman.
But the important thing about you
is that
you are you."

Rather than a straightforward illustration of a child on the page, the accompanying illustration simply shows the words "you are you" written in script--for part of what makes you you is the ability to frame the abstract world around you, as you grow, through language.

Jan Andrews' Pumpkin Time is an odd book. The illustrations by Kim LaFave create an expectation for light, seasonal whimsy. Instead, this picture book is, I think, an extended metaphor for maternal depression. When three children wake one morning to discover their mother has transformed into a pumpkin, they take the situation in stride. They go about their lives hiding their new reality from the world and making do as best they can. Their strength and independence call forth a sweet music from the pumpkin. But the burden of caring for themselves and the loneliness of being without their mother begins to wear on them. At the point where they become overwhelmed by their new lot, the children wake up to have their mother restored.

The first time I read Pumpkin Time to my daughter, I had no idea what it was going to be about. As I read along, I anticipated anxiety, fear or even boredom on her behalf. Instead, she was completely drawn into the story and has insisted on having it read over and over again for weeks on end. I think it helps her work through her fearful fours and the new awareness of how independence can and is tied up with abandonment issues. (As a companion book to Pumpkin Time, re the theme of maternal depression, check out Liz Rosenberg's Monster Mama. It is less ethereal and is decidedly cheeky.)

The most beloved book in our collection is, without a doubt, Arnold Lobel's Uncle Elephant.

This easy reader by the author of the Frog and Toad books is a masterpiece of literary minimalism. When the young narrator's parents get lost at sea, he is taken in by his aged Uncle. The book playfully explores youth vs age and naivety vs wisdom. It is a testament to grief and a quiet tribute to the love that can grow from mutual loss. The nonesensical elephant song that serves as the emotional climax of the book makes both me and my daughter very happy.

Now, tell me, what are the books in your collection that show a more complex world beyond the veil? Do you enjoy reading them? Alone? With children? What is the response of the children you read them to?


  1. Without a doubt: Bill Peet's The Caboose Who Got Loose. Its subject is depression, and I don't just mean a transient kind of sadness.

    I'd also add The Giving Tree.

  2. I always think of Where the Wild Things Are as being beyond the veil. How Max uses his imagination to process his anger and feeling out of control. My mother also pointed out to me how the book is about forgiveness... Max is sent to bed without any supper, but when he returns his supper is waiting for him... still hot (as a side note, I took my daughter to see the movie today and we left about 25 minutes in. I was not at all surprised that she was scared by it, I never thought she'd want to go in the first place. It was very dark)

  3. Grandfather Twilight, who walks through the trees - the loveliest twilight story I know.


    Oh! Owl Moon.

    And a longer book but one that my four year old loves - Big Susan.

  4. I think I'm kinda scared of books like this. Also failing my son in variety. So yesterday I went out and bought him a few books, including The Important Book. After every page he wanted me to read it again. I'm really enjoying your blog, Sue.

  5. owl babies - the text is so simple and sweet and even my kinders could draw out relevant connections from their own life.

    the red tree - each page describes how it can feel being sad with the most amazing illustrations and prose. it is a great way to talk about emotions.

    love you aunt sue. i cannot wait for you to meet ashvin.

  6. We've been reading the Babar books to Madeline, who is not quite three yet. She loves them, because the stories are full of adventure and action, and the pictures are great. But it's so interesting to me to see the French values portrayed in the book--the elephants who dress in clothes and drive cars and build a city are the height of sophistication. They are not portrayed as animals who try to be what they are not (as you might imagine an American author doing) but as very cultured and civilized!

    By the way, there was an article in the New Yorker a while back, perhaps mid October, that was highly critical of recent children's picture books. (I think it was the October 16 issue). I thought of you and wondered if you had read it. Would love to hear your thoughts on it. Karen H.

  7. Oh, and how about Imogene's Antlers? Madeline has no clue what it's about, but she loves it anyways. As do I. I think I know what it's about though... Could be wrong, of course. :) Karen, again. (Sorry to be so long winded.)

  8. I think I'm going to look up The Important Book. It sounds delightful.


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