"Read a story," my mother once told me, "and find out who you are. Or write one," she added, "for the same reason." What she was talking about was the strong connection that readers and writers have to story, the connection that compels you to read or write to find a piece of yourself there somewhere; an image or smell perhaps that takes you back to another place and another time .
When a book has this "Ah!" factor, you can read it time and again and still startle yourself with recognition. These six picture books are about connections, different though they may be: two nonfiction books connect us with place, two others with time--we see us ourselves in old tales; another is about friends, and the last looks at how we become who we are . . . if we're lucky.
William T. George's Box Turtle at Long Pond (Greenwillow Books: $12.95), illustrated by Lindsay Barrett George, is a lovely mix of story and information (I never knew that box turtles couldn't swim!). A simple yet lyrical account of a day in the life of a box turtle, it begins with a wonderful full-page spread of the mist-covered pond we soon will explore. We are invited into the small but dramatic world of the turtle as he survives weather, a curious raccoon and the rigors of food gathering. The art is so astonishingly detailed that more than once my hand went out expecting to touch grass, a birch log, or rock. This book is about connection to place, but it is also about the connections among the creatures who live at Long Pond.
Jim Arnosky's splendid In the Forest (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books: $13.95) is a portfolio of paintings and text that revere and respect the forest and the power it has for change. Here are forest secrets revealed (the beaver hidden in his winter lodge) and kept (the brook disappearing underground, the grouse camouflaged by a copse). "If you can't find the bird in the painting, I'll understand," writes Arnosky. "I never would have noticed it myself if it hadn't flown." Through the conversational narrative and the magnificent oil paintings, Arnosky's intimate connection to the forest becomes ours. Because of this book I will walk in my forest with new eyes and ears.
We see ourselves in It's Too Noisy! (Harper/Crowell: $12.95), Joanna Cole's retelling of an old Jewish folk tale. A farmer lives in a little house with his noisy family and wishes for peace and quiet. The farmer seeks out a wise man who wields ancient wisdom to help the farmer to appreciate the loving clamor that surrounds him. The text is rhythmic, and Kate Duke's numerous watercolor illustrations evoke a world where much more is happening than words can depict. While the farmer doubts the Wise Man's words, for instance, the Wise Man's cat--just as smart as a cat can be--smiles reassuringly. My favorites are the pigs, who, unlike most humans, are wise enough to be as happy at the beginning of the tale as they are at the end.
Tales of a Long Afternoon (E. P. Dutton: $13.95), Max Bolliger's retelling of six of Aesop's fables, weaves a fox, a raven, a turtle, a hare, a peacock, a crow, a dog, and a wise lion and mouse together in a community of friendship, but not until their very human faults bring out the worst in them. Aesop's tales have been retold by many, but Jindra Capek's stylized paintings are especially good at showing their timelessness. The volcano that erupts during the central conflict smolders at story's end, for instance, showing us that envy, jealousy and vanity may erupt at any time again. This story will play itself over and over.
In Margaret Wild's Mr. Nick's Knitting (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $12.95), Mr. Nick and Mrs. Jolley are not only close friends but also kindred spirits--they both knit. Mr. Nick knits "sweaters, big ones and small ones, for his 22 nieces and nephews, who grew bigger every year," and Mrs. Jolley (the "very untidy knitter") knitted toys "like hedgehogs and kangaroos, monkeys and lions." When Mrs. Jolley is ill and lonely, Mr. Nick knows exactly what to do, as only a thoughtful and imaginative friend would. Dee Huxley's illustrations glow with color, and there is a wonderful sense of freedom and movement in the pattern of this book, as if it might have been put together by a joyous knitter.
Natalie Babbitt has written and illustrated a story that is deceptively simple. Revealing more with each reading, Nellie: A Cat on Her Own (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $11.95) focuses on a marionette cat who lives "in the cottage of a clever old woman" and only dances when the old woman pulls the strings for her. Nellie is content--content enough not to wish for anything more than she has--until a worldly cat named Old Tom enters Nellie's life. A free spirit who knows more about life than Nellie ever knew to ask and is not afraid to say so, he tells her, "It would be better if you danced all on your own." "I could never do that," Nellie responds, but when the clever old woman dies, she has no choice. It is Tom who says what is, for me, the most important line in the story when he takes away Nellie's strings. "If I don't," said Big Tom, "they'll get in the way and tangle up."
Connections? After reading "Nellie" I suddenly remembered my adolescent daughter looking up at me and asking once: "Just when are we grown up anyway?" Maybe there's still time to give her this book. This story, illustrated by the author's lovely, serene pictures filled with light, is about the risks and the joys in growing up to be strong and independent. It is for all ages. And for all parents.