March 23, 2023


The Knowing. By Ani Di Franco. Painted by Julia Mathew. Penguin Workshop. $18.99.

     It is wonderful to have a book for young children that, in addition to looking beautiful, teaches them to go beyond surface appearances and look inward to find out the truth about themselves and (by implication) others. This is especially welcome at a time when so many sociopolitical pressures are designed to provide benefits to specific groups because of superficial, appearance-dominated perceptions: because of skin color, for instance, or because of a form of dress or a particular activity. The underlying motivations of those pushing the “use appearance for benefits” approach may be fine, at least some of the time, but they are inherently divisive and frequently self-contradictory – for instance, by stating that people with certain skin colors deserve special treatment while people with certain body types (such as a very high body mass index) should be discussed without reference to physical appearance.

     So The Knowing is a bit of fresh air, thanks to Ani Di Franco writing, for example, “I have a color/ to my hair/ my skin/ my eyes/ but this is not all of who I am.” Julia Mathew’s painted illustrations conjure up a world at once real and existing on the edge of reality, a world in which a glance into a mirror seems to reveal more than a reflection of a young girl’s physical self, while a gaze through a window shows not only the actual outdoors but also scenes from very far away and in many guises.

     However, there is a foundational difficulty with The Knowing that makes the book less inward-eye-opening than it could be. The title refers to some sort of mystical concept that is never explained, never defined, never even discussed in an author’s note for parents, as might be expected at the back of the book. Adults and children alike are left to figure out the title – whose two words are repeated throughout the narrative – for themselves. And this can be frustrating. For example, Di Franco writes, “I have beliefs/and someday those beliefs might change,” but also writes repeatedly that “I can take heart in what’s showing/ knowing it’s all a part of The Knowing.” So somehow The Knowing is an ineffable belief that does not change, even though the girl narrating the book has beliefs that might change, but even if they do, they do not, since “we’re all a part of The Knowing.” The final page’s illustration is inevitable in this context, showing the girl looking toward the horizon where a bright, beautiful sun is just rising or setting – that is, clearly looking toward whatever The Knowing is.

     Of course, it is not necessary to define The Knowing, and some of the poetry inherent in Di Franco’s writing would be diminished if it were more explanatory. But this is not a book for adults – it is a picture book for young children, who are sure to ask what The Knowing means and why the little girl narrator keeps talking about it. That will force adults who read with children to come up with their own explanation of The Knowing – and again, there is nothing wrong with that, assuming Di Franco would be satisfied with having some adults say The Knowing means “God,” others say the phrase means “Nature,” others say it refers to “The Universe,” and others say it has to do with a kind of collective unconscious in which all people are interconnected. And those are just some of the possibilities.

     Mysticism-oriented books for adults tend to make things evanescent and leave exact interpretations to readers, who bring their own gloss to whatever pronouncements are made and interpret the writing in ways that relate to their own lives. Bringing the same approach to a picture book for young children, however, works less well. Di Franco and Mathew are clearly trying to teach something, to show something, to encourage their very young readers to accept that they are more than the sum of their appearance plus their activities and are part of something larger. But by providing so little guidance for kids on this inward, spiritual journey, they are creating a situation in which young readers need to rise well above themselves to feel and analyze what The Knowing means, if they can – or need to turn to grown-ups, who may have their own notions of what The Knowing could be but have no way to be sure if their thoughts parallel those of Di Franco and Mathew. Perhaps this does not matter; perhaps The Knowing is intended only to communicate that one’s skin color, interests, thoughts and accomplishments are not all that is but are merely parts of something greater. If that is the case, so be it. But The Knowing feels like a book that wants to guide young children on a specific path that it never quite delineates.

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