Monday, June 29, 2015

Alex Is Reading...BOOK

I already had the idea for this post in my head when a new book came in. (Today, it came in. Good timing.) It's called Book. Written by David Miles and illustrated by Natalie Hoopes, it's a lovely collage, a love letter to the paper book. (It doesn't care much for electronics, so if you have too soft a soft spot for your e-reader, it might hit you where you're vulnerable.) It's also the newest addition to what I think is a genuinely lovely and not often named genre of books that let art come--literally--alive.

When I was working on my last post, Christopher Myers's My Pen started me thinking about books that carry their characters into whole, physical worlds built out of their or other people's creativity. The popular Quest and Journey books by Aaron Becker are perfect examples, where a girl's crayon is her key to exploring a vast, vibrant, beautifully painted world. In Robert Sabuda's (typically!) fantastic pop-up The Dragon and the Knight, knight and dragon chase each other through not only the fairy tales they come from but the physical pages of the books those fairy tales are in.

For middle-grade readers, Michael Ende's The Neverending Story is the cornerstone of a tradition wherein child characters walk straight into the stories they are reading--Cornelia Funke's Inkheart books and Chris Colfer's The Land of Stories series are two well-loved instances.(Incidentally, Chris Colfer will be signing copies of the fourth book in this series at the Booksmith on July 9th!) In young adult, Meg Wolitzer's Belzhar provides catharsis to its teenage protagonists through the act of writing their truths. Jasper Fforde's adult mystery/fantasy Thursday Next series is an irrepressibly self-referential epic traipse through the lives of characters who know they are characters, moving from book to book and pun to pun at a hectic pace.

A central conviction behind fiction writing is that good stories are real in their consequences, in their emotional impact, in the images and lives that they conjure in our heads when we read and write and tell them. It's always about creating something out of the thin air of our imaginations and having it stick, as if it were as solid as we are. So the characters who get to walk, really and truly, into their art and their books are very particularly about us.

Lots of characters get to do things we can't, but these characters get to do the thing that is one step beyond us. They are doing the thing that we always feel is just past our fingertips--solidifying the flights of their imaginations into worlds that will hold up under their feet. It's throwing metaphor out in front of them and finding continents, skies, seas, and every living thing, there to really breathe and touch. It's the moment in The Magician's Nephew where Aslan starts singing, and Narnia happens out of a dark expanse of not-yet-imagined. What a wonderful thing that is! It's no wonder there are lots of stories about it.

And it's no wonder that picture books are an incredible medium for stories like this. Art is all about taking a blank world, paper or canvas or screen, and filling it with life. Imagination is the realm of people who haven't forgotten to use it--especially children. Last week we read Harold and the Purple Crayon in storytime, and I was struck by it in a new way. When I was little, nothing about that book worried me. I understood that each piece of Harold's adventure would safely lead to the next, because Harold had his crayon and his wits, and that was all it took. (I also really liked the part about pie.)

As an adult, I still have faith in Harold, but for the first time I find it a little eerie--because there is nothing in either the pictures or the words of that book, aside from Harold's hand and his mind, that he hasn't created himself. There is no point at which he walks out the front door. He knows he has a bedroom, but it exists because he draws it at the end. That's incredible! Many stories have characters falling into books or starting in our world, but Crockett Johnson didn't need any of that. All he needed was a little boy with a simple tool and a mind that made things real, and the whole world grew up around him. It grew up with such strength that all it took was a few purple lines, and we never questioned where it started or where it ended. We just believed that it was real.

That's taking joy in what stories are, and what they can do.

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