Storytime: ‘Journeys’ comes just in time for back-to-school blues
As I write this column, I’ve just sent both my kids off to their first day at new schools, and – well . . . there are no words.
Perhaps in the back of my mind I was anticipating this lump-in-the-throat feeling when I selected Aaron Becker’s new picture book, Journeys, to review this month. It’s stunning and brilliant and nuanced and, as it turns out, rather therapeutic to those of us feeling at a bit of a loss because – well, there are no words. Literally. The book has no words.
Of course, this concept isn’t without precedent. Raymond Briggs perfected it way back in 1978 with The Snowman, and creative minds such as Ingrid and Dieter Shubert (The Umbrella) and Marije and Ronald Tolman (The Tree House) have fleshed out the genre.
Nevertheless, one would think such a book would represent a bit of a problem for the average book critic. But I have to disagree. Now don’t say it – don’t even think it: that cliche about a picture being worth a thousand words. If you want to “read” this book, you need to first sweep all cliches, proverbs, preconceived notions, worrisome office memos, tiresome text messages, etc. from your mind.
And while you’re at it, if you’re the parent of a child who started school this week, seat yourself somewhere far from the stacks of school papers that need your attention. Next, banish all your ideas about what a book should be, what reading should be, what literacy should be, what education should be (sorry, I’m just coming off of a grad school paper-writing bender).
There. Now you’re ready to follow this young girl on her adventures around the globe. Oh, sorry, bring your kids along, too. But chances are they won’t need to do the preliminary tasks mentioned above unless they’re already under the influence of too much institutional thinking.
At any rate, the adventure begins where many a great childhood adventure begins: in the lap of boredom. The opening spread is a sepia-toned cross-section of a city apartment sometime in the recent past when people were tethered to phone cords and desktop computers.
Perhaps Becker is trying to say something about how fixed-in-place the average human is, because he also includes a layer of underground pipes in this slice of life, as if to expose the inhabitants’ roots.
A young girl sits on the steps, her red scooter the only smear of color in the picture. After attempting to find someone to play with her, she retreats to her equally drab bedroom. Ah, but there’s a suggestion of excitement here, thanks to the map on the wall, the hot air balloon hanging from the ceiling and the rumpled sail-boat-covered sheets. Yes, something is about to happen.
Remember Harold and his purple crayon? Well, this time it’s a red crayon, a nameless girl and a far more visually sophisticated setting, but the idea is the same. The girl spots a crayon on the floor, draws herself a doorway and enters a luminous world where absolutely anything can happen. Paper lanterns and twinkling lights hang above a lush forest, lighting her way to a little dock, where she draws herself a boat and floats down the channel to an enormous castle.
Soon, the girl learns that she’ll have to be quick and resourceful to survive in this world. And when she finds a beautiful bird in distress, she must show great bravery to set it free. The themes here are nothing new, but the way they’re presented, wordlessly, elegantly, is highly effective. The caged bird metaphor is just obvious enough, and the sense of the exotic is intoxicating.
Becker, who currently makes his home in Massachusetts, brings an adventurer’s spirit to his work: He has lived in Japan and East Africa and backpacked through Sweden and the South Pacific.
But the real gift Becker gives his “readers” is freedom. For children who will spend the next 10 months at a desk being told what to do and how to do it, who will live their lives by bells and schedules and assignments and be expected to conform to the particular ideals of the American classroom, freedom is a truly beautiful thing.