May 29, 2014
(++++) BOOKS OF WONDER
Books Always Everywhere. By Jane Blatt. Illustrated by Sarah Massini. Random House. $16.99.
Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas. By Lynne Cox. Illustrated by Brian Floca. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
The instantaneous transporters so beloved of science fiction already exist. They are called books – able to transport anyone from anyplace to anyplace else, or any other time, with the flip of a page and the reading of a few words. The marvels of books are what Jane Blatt’s Books Always Everywhere are all about. The very simple story for ages 3-7 shows toddlers interacting with all sorts of books: a huge one about an elephant, a tiny one about a mouse, a wide one featuring a smiling crocodile, a tall one out of which a giraffe peeks, and so on. Books do so much! In the hands of these toddlers and in the delightful art of Sarah Massini, they become a house (some titles shown are “The House That Jack Built,” “House Mouse” and “Home Sweet Home”); are stacked until they form a tall chair (titles include “100 Best High Chairs” and “Wuthering Heights” – that one is surely for parents!); are read as the toddlers sit on swings in the park (“Playtime,” “Trees Are the Bee’s Knees”); are funny while being read in the branches of a tree where the kids play with monkeys (“Silly Billy,” “100 Jungle Jokes”); and so on. Blatt’s point is that books are great anytime: a little girl reads one inside a dry and cozy playhouse on a page that says “Book rainy,” then reads outdoors on a beach for “Book sunny.” The whole point of Books Always Everywhere is that books are always everywhere – transporting young children to all sorts of places and accompanying them as they travel, whether for real or in their imaginations. Indeed, that is exactly what books do for and with readers of all ages: move them from place to place, move them emotionally, move them anytime to anywhere they choose to go.
A lovely example, one among many, is Lynne Cox’s Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas, a story for kids ages 4-8 of a place that few North American children will know and a time many decades ago. Set in Christchurch, New Zealand, it is the tale of an eight-foot-long, 1200-pound elephant seal (sometimes called a sea elephant) that chose, for reasons unknown, to live in the Avon River, which flows through Christchurch – rather than on islands in the open ocean where others of the species live. Although embroidered and given a near-fairy-tale gloss by Cox’s writing and Brian Floca’s warm and winning illustrations, this is essentially a true story. The seal, named by Christchurch residents for Queen Elizabeth, swam in the river in the heart of the city, then crawled onto the nearby grass to bask in the sun – and even tossed clumps of mud onto her own back to stay cool when the weather became too hot. The imaginary part of the book involves a young boy named Michael with whom Cox suggests that Elizabeth developed a special bond – really, Michael stands for all the people of Christchurch and other towns along the river who came to love Elizabeth. But after a time, and again for unknown reasons, Elizabeth put herself in harm’s way by starting to bask right on a road near the water. As Cox tells it and Floca shows it, cars swerved to avoid her, people became worried about her, and eventually local officials decided the only way to keep her safe was to relocate her to places where other elephant seals live. So they did – three times. But each time, Elizabeth somehow found her way back to the Avon River, even from hundreds of miles away; and finally, there was nothing to do but let her stay. Cox tells this part of the story dreamily, and Floca illustrates it with a sense of the almost magical return of Elizabeth to the place she had decided to make into her home. The book ends with Elizabeth happy in the river – and parents should expect young children to be so charmed that they ask to visit Elizabeth in reality. But this is a case in which a visit via book is the only one possible. Cox does not provide information on the real story – a significant flaw in what is otherwise a very fine book – but this tale dates to the late 1970s and early 1980s. Elizabeth was hit by a car while basking on a road in 1985, and while she was apparently uninjured (although it took 10 people to lift the car off her!), she died later that year, apparently of a viral infection. So this is one case among many in which transportation by book will have to suffice, bringing today’s young readers to a time and a set of circumstances that no longer exist.