The Secret of It
Today is November 9, the anniversary of a certain day-after, and it seems as fitting a day as any to ask, why read or write picture books? Acutely aware of my privilege to make them, I’ve struggled for the past year-plus with how to keep doing that, doing work I love, without feeling like my life is nothing but frivolity and fluff. How have other writers done it? I wonder. What have other writers done amid rage and storms and fires? How have writers responded to and filtered their scary world for children? Looking for answers, I ended up at one of my many picture book shelves recently, and randomly pulled out my copy of The Little Island.
Do you remember The Little Island, that Caldecott classic by Golden MacDonald (aka Margaret Wise Brown) and Leonard Weisgard, published in 1946? The book begins with a poetic description of an unspoiled island and the life on it, like “a tickly smelling pear tree,” and “spiders sailing their webs against a gentle wind”. Then one day, lobsters arrive, and seals, kingfishers, gulls, strawberries, and finally a sailboat with a kitten. And with the arrival of the sailboat, the story shifts subtly when the kitten’s voice, a childlike voice, enters and responds to the narrative. “This little island is as little as big is big,” says the kitten. And the island responds, “So are you.” It turns out the island has a voice too.
The kitten and the island have a conversation about what it means to be an island:
“… I am part of this big world,”
said the little kitten.
“My feet are on it.”
“So am I, said the little Island.
“No, you’re not,” said the kitten.
“Water is all around you
and cuts you off from the land.”
“Ask any fish,” said the Island.
“So the kitten caught a fish…
and the fish told the kitten
how all land is one land
under the sea.
The cat’s eyes were shining
with the secret of it.
“The cat’s eyes were shining with the secret of it.”
I just love it, that moment when the kitten’s eyes get huge with the joy of “secret” knowledge that “all land is one land under the sea” — the discovery that everything in the world is invisibly connected. Expressed in deceptively simple pictures and language, it’s a potent metaphor. After the kitten gets onto his boat and returns to the land he came from, he will know that he is still connected to that place of wonder and discovery, with his small paws on the same earth as the beautiful, uncorrupted little Island.
Like The Little Island, my favorite picture books all have something, as the sea does, beneath the surface of their stories. They are bottomless but safe places where children can go deep and find meaning for themselves, so that their eyes too might shine “with the secret of it.” What was Margaret Wise Brown thinking when she wrote this book? I wish I knew. Was she consciously responding to a world at war? “Asked on a publisher’s questionnaire to indicate her wartime service, [Margaret Wise Brown] replied in earnest ‘writer of children’s books.’”* I for one am thankful that she never stopped doing what she did so well.
And these days, I’m grateful to all of you who make sure books like hers are still read. I can’t tell you how much lately it has comforted me to know that every day readers of this blog are, through shared listening and looking, connecting child to child, and children to the world. We are all connected, whether we like it or not, to the earth, to each other… and call me naïve, but I think the world might be a better place if everyone read a well-chosen picture book every day. We need them now, more than ever.
* from Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon, by Leonard Marcus
A random selection of other 20th Century picturebooks I’ve re-read lately:
The Brownstone, by Paula Sher, 1972, reissued in 2015
Different animals in an apartment building can’t get along. They figure it out.
Who Needs Donuts? By Marc Alan Stamaty, 1973, reissued in 2003
A trippy, 70’s-fueled take on discovering what’s really important.
The Other Way to Listen, by Byrd Baylor and Peter Parnall, 1978
On true listening, specifically to the natural world.
The Bee Tree, by Patrica Polacco, 1993
On the sweetness of books.
The Great Migration: An American Story, by Jacob Lawrence, his paintings of 1940-41 published with his words as a book in 1993, with a poem in appreciation by Walter Dean Myers.
About the exodus around World War I of African-Americans from the South to northern industrial cities.
What Zeesie Saw on Delancy Street, by Elsa Okon Rael and Marjorie Priceman, 1996
An immigrant on the Lower East Side of New York in the 30’s discovers how and why we share our pie.
Deborah Freedman is the author and illustrator of six picturebooks for children (of all ages!), most recently SHY and THIS HOUSE, ONCE. She lives in a colorful house in Connecticut, where she is busy working on her next book, about a worm. You can learn more about Deborah and her work at www.deborahfreedman.net.