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Over at Fitch Happens, Sheree Fitch has written an interesting post on the question of what is children’s poetry? and why it’s even a question—in the end determining that “children’s poetry is poetry”… to which I say hallelujah, thank you and yes. I couldn’t agree more and would only add that society’s analysis of art, generally, combined with the impulse to categorize, complicate and impose labels on everything, serves no purpose that I can see except to make me tip over with the weight of it all.

Moving slightly beyond poetry—and if it must be defined—then, okay, what is a children’s book, story, poem, song…?

I suppose it’s something created with the child-nature in mind, however that doesn’t mean its appeal needs to be limited to children. I collect picture books because they’re gorgeous works of art on many levels and I love reading them for their whimsy, humour and joy as well as their philosophy and depth; they remind me of aspects of life, who we are, what’s important, in a way that nothing else does.

I’d like to think that children, also, are benefiting from reading outside the ages suggested on the backs of books—both higher and lower ages—and that teenagers are including both middle grade and adult books among their choices, and vice versa in all directions.

When we read as children, or are read to, we take away one thing, but if we dare to (are allowed to/allow ourselves to) come back to the same book as an older child, a teenager, an adult, we get something entirely different (or—also very nice—are reminded of the original insight). As with any art form, we take from it what we need at that moment.  When we read to our children, that’s one thing, but my hope is that we don’t read children’s books only because we have children, but because we were children, and because there’s bits of us from that enchanted time we’d be wise to try to hold onto.

Labels are useful for publishing houses, bookstores and libraries but we mustn’t let that limit our choices, for ourselves or our kids (or the gifts we give each other; I love giving picture books to adults).

Consider those merry chaps, those pre-label Grimm Brothers, who wrote at a time when stories weren’t specifically for children and whose stories can absolutely be consumed by all ages and then consider what’s been done to the original “faerie tale”— Disney is a good example of “kiddifying” work. In commercial hands stories quickly become shlock, so much candyfloss.

Maybe THAT’S what we’re talking about when we talk of “kid stuff”.

But that stuff isn’t the real goods—because real words are ageless. And because everyone knows once you’ve discovered the real thing you’ve discovered it for always.

~

From the Re-Run Series: orginally posted November, 2011.

the text(ure) of words

I’ve been thinking more than usual about words recently, about their placement, the choices we make in which of them we read, what and how we write. And why. How they tumble from between our lips or hands in conversation, how we listen to them, or don’t. And how, in this increasingly Twitterish, texty, Like-says-it-all world, in which (for the record and for the most part) I happily participate—I’m feeling a little nostalgic for a slower way of communicating.

Then, amazingly—in the middle of all this mulling—the universe does what it does so well, accommodates me, by placing in my path a book that not only slows me down but stops me momentarily with its beauty and simplicity and utter confounding complexity. 

The Black Book of Colors (a children’s picture book, which is—as the best of that genre are—so much more than a kid’s book) is written in both braille and visual text on black paper with raised black line drawings, also on black pages. The book, in fact, is entirely black so that on opening its black covers I find myself challenged to see colours not as a sighted person, but as a blind one. 

Colours, I am told, have sounds, taste, textures, smells. 

Well I sort of knew that already, but then it’s easy to attach a smell to a colour you’ve seen, but how do you do that when you’ve never seen red? What, then, does it sound/taste/smell/feel like? (according to the book’s narrator, it feels like a scraped knee)

I’m left in awe of the difficulty braille must pose to someone newly blind, how sensitive their fingertips would have to become, and how calloused and thick and impatient mine are. How one would have to slow down, and of all the benefits that come with taking ones time. I think of what I’m missing as I’m bombarded with a barrage of text every day—ads, billboards, signs, litter-ature everywhere and unavoidable. Subliminal. All that energy I, we, use in automatically translating those trillion words into what they mostly are: rubbish.

There’s something to be said for experiencing words without distraction, allowing them time to sink in rather than bounce off us or inspire an instant reaction of the oh-so-(yawn)-glib kind, to let ourselves ‘feel’ them instead, one word at a time. Not to impress, not to throw back out there, but to mull. To savour. Maybe even allow the things to rattle around our brains long enough to change us in ways we don’t even know…  

“But black is the king of all the colors. It is as soft as silk when his mother hugs him and her hair falls in his face.”  —The Book of Colors, by Menena Cottin, Groundwood Books, 2008

~

new favourite

I love book shopping for the very young—it gives me a reason (not that I need one but it helps) to wander about the picture book aisles at length where I inevitably find something to add to my own collection. My latest discovery being Debra Frasier’s On the Day You Were Born.

Beautifully illustrated (by Frasier) in bold earthy colours and simple lines. The text is written as a poem of welcome and tells what the various elements of nature—wind, trees, tide, moon, stars, sunwere doing to prepare for ‘your’ arrival on the planet. (The trees, for instance “…collected the Sun’s light in their leaves, where, in silent mystery, they made oxygen for you to breathe…”)

Frasier is new to me, so I looked her up and found that ‘connection to nature’ is a theme close to her heart.  I’ve already called my bookseller with a list of titles just for me—as well as gifts for friends and family, both young and older.

“On the event of your birth
word of your coming
passed from animal to animal.

The reindeer told the Arctic terns,
who told the humpback whales,
who told the Pacific salmon,
who told the monarch butterflies,
who told the green turtles,
who told the European eel,
who told the busy garden warblers,

and the marvelous news migrated worldwide.

While you waited in darkness,
tiny knees curled to chin,
the Earth and her creatures
with the Sun and the Moon
all moved in their places,
each ready to greet you
the very first moment
of the very first day you arrived….”

From On the Day You Were Born, by Debra Frasier.

~

not just for kids

Confession: I like picture books.

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.

~

instructions: becoming real

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse.  “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

“I suppose you are Real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.

“The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,” he said. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

(From—The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams)