I still remember the delicious weight of them as I’d lug a stack out of the school library, the anticipation of getting them home, the pleasure of sitting surrounded by them, on my bed, on the floor; every one of them smelled the same—of what? other people’s PJs? warm bed covers? snacks? Nothing smells like picture books from the library—the result, perhaps, of a particular intimacy with many—and those pages, soft from turning, being turned, and turned back again…
I remember laughter at some point. Not mine, someone else’s; comments and laughter at the stack of big square books clutched to my chest as I made my way home in falling down socks and MaryJanes (sigh; book snobbery begins early). Seems other kids had moved on to the abridged Heidi or whatever. At least publicly. Privately, I realize now, they would have still been read to at night. But no one read to anyone at my house; it was every man for himself, which I didn’t find odd in the slightest. Never crossed my mind in fact until Peter and I, a few years ago, were talking about a book I’d bought for a nephew and he said how he’d loved that one being read to him.
Read to you?
By then, of course, I understood that children were read to, I’d read to a few myself, it just hadn’t clicked that someone might have read to me…
Maybe that’s why I didn’t have any sense of categorizing books as childish, or being for babies. I read what I liked. No one chose for me.
Having said that, I did eventually move on to Heidi and beyond, but I didn’t outgrow my love of big square books, to which I returned as an adult and which I now appreciate for what they actually are: bite sized literary gems of art and poetry, illustrations worthy of a gallery—prose, poetry, humour and life lessons, worthy (no, better than worthy) of sharing shelf space with the likes of any zennish tomes written by the ubiquitous ‘life coach’.
I have a small collection, which would be larger if I didn’t keep giving copies away to small people—although I’ve noticed many of the kids in my life are getting to that Heidi age and may not return to the pleasure of PBs for another few decades.
All of this to say, my most recent (truly) gemmish discovery is The Sound of Colors, by Jimmy Liao, a Taiwanese writer and artist who embraces the small in life and makes it expandable enough for all ages.
The story is about a nameless girl in a nameless place who is going blind and finds her way, through the dark tunnels of a subway system (what a strangely perfect vehicle), back to colour and light and life. And then back underground. The degree of actual darkness or light around her not much mattering, she realizes—it’s what she ‘sees’/hears/feels/carries within her as memory and sensation that makes all the difference.
The ‘paintings’ are beautiful—packed subway cars in primary colours, box cars painted with Matisse dancers, bright geometrics, giant green mazes (that “if you look hard enough, there’s always a way out“), elephants in apple printed capes, whales for sleeping on, a caged crescent moon—all this and more juxtaposed with the real world of grocers and traffic and mobs of people.
Then there’s the text:
“Trains rumble and clank and rush past me.
Which is the right one?
It’s easy to get lost underground.
I wonder where I am and where I’m going
and if I’m getting closer to what I’m searching for.
A little boy asks me how to get home.
“I’m looking, too,” I tell him.
Home is the place where everything I’ve lost
is waiting patiently for me to find my way back.”
And that’s just a tiny slice of the middle.
I’m not sure the kids I know are the right age for this book at the moment—they’re in that awkward stage of being both too old and too young at the same time.
Fortunately, I do know a few adults who’ll love it.