During lunch with a resident at the retirement center, we talked about art and its effect on the aging brain. Both of us thought any form art challenged people’s perceptions and kept that organ active.
From there, we took a short hop to various types of writing: fiction, non-fiction, novels, plays, short stories and poems. Poetry, we agreed, was the most challenging form as words had to be chosen for maximum value: their onomatopoeic quality, for example, as in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Bells”; their soft or harsh enunciation; their length or their ambiguity which allows various levels of interpretation. Poetry, we agreed resided in both the spheres of music and statement.
Eventually, we came round to children’s books. Like poetry, they appear simple, using few words and a linear plot. That simplicity is an illusion, of course. A children’s book, if done well, distills the elements of story, emotions and words into a concoction as precise and effective as a well-loved perfume. The whole also must work on two levels, capable at once of satisfying a child’s exploring mind and evoking childhood reminiscence in an adult. The convergence is difficult to achieve.
My lunch companion gave one example of a book with convergence: We Are In A Book! by Mo Willems. Willems has written a series of adventures in which Gerald, the elephant, and Piggie, a… well, a pig, appear. But she loved, We Are in A Book! particularly because of the device the author uses to draw in his audience. Gerald begins by whispering to Piggie that he thinks someone is staring at them. Piggie leans out of the page to confirm Gerald’s suspicion. “A reader is reading us!” he chortles and states the obvious: that he and Gerald are characters in a book A few pages of illustrated jubilation follow. “We are being read! We are being read!” Then Piggie decides to play a game. He tells Gerald he will make the reader say a word out loud. Gerald looks dubious, but giggles when he learns the word is “ Banana!” More jubilation. Then Piggie asks Gerald if he’d like to suggest a word before the book ends. ENDS? Gerald looks horrified. “How many pages are left?” he asks. Piggie takes a peek. At the moment, they are on page 46. The book ends on page 57. Gerald becomes upset, realizing that now they are on page 47. No! 48. No! 49. Wait, wait. The pages are turning too fast. “I want more words, more jokes, more ‘Banana,” Gerald weeps to his friend. Fortunately, Piggie has an idea. When he and Gerald reach the last page, Piggie says to the reader, “Hello. Will you please read us again?”
The device is as simple and elegant as E=MC2, and it, too, is deeply complex. The writer knows the book has two readers: one looking toward the future, the other returning to the past. When Gerald discovers the book will end and sees the pages turning faster and faster, he protests. He wants more words, more jokes, more fun. The child agrees and claps joyously. But for the adult seated beside the child, the words warn of time’s passage. The book of life cannot be read again and again, forcing him or her to realize that being seated beside a laughing child may be among the best moments of a life.
To write so simply and so deeply isn’t easy. Would-be writers of children’s books must remember banana is more than a funny word. It also nourishes.