In my last blog post, I talked about the picture book John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat written by Jenny Wagner and illustrated by Ron Brooks. With the help of a superb blog post from Anna Branford, I explored the unexpected power of picture books and what they might mean at different times of our lives.

As promised, I now want to explore some of the picture books which have meant a lot to me as an adult, as a way to tease out the misconception that children’s books are only for children.

The Red Tree by Shaun Tan

(Lothian Books, 2001)

You may have heard this before, but my career origin story can be traced back to a well timed, and extremely unexpected gift.

For my eighteenth birthday, one of my best friends, Leah, gifted me The Red Tree. I was extremely surprised because I’d asked her for The Thoughts of Nanushka (I’d seen the trailer for a film based on this and it sounded suitably profound and pretentious for my teenage self) and so receiving a picture book in its stead wasn’t exactly what I had anticipated.

It turned out, however, to be the exact book I needed at that point in my life: legally an adult, leaning heavily on a picture book.

A photo of an internal spread of the picture book 'The Red Tree'. It reads: "sometimes the day begins with nothing to look forward to"

I’ve often felt on the outside of the world, like it wasn’t meant for me. This book not only showed me that there are other people out there feeling what I’m feeling, but it balanced my nihilism with hope.

A photo of an internal spread of the picture book 'The Red Tree'. It reads: "the world is a deaf machine"

The leaves that appear as a motif throughout the book say to me that the titular red tree is not a one time thing; that life, depression, change, growth and happiness come in cycles, in seasons. For someone who often finds themselves struggling with depression and melancholia, this is reassuring.

A photo of an internal spread of the picture book 'The Red Tree'. It reads: "and the day seems to end the way it began but suddenly there it is right in front of you bright and vivid quietly waiting"

So, when “the day seems to end the way it began”, “with nothing to look forward to”, to know that something can surprise you with a fulfilled promise, a hope in bloom, can make all the difference.

I’ve even gone so far as having the sapling of the red tree tattooed on my wrist. I didn’t want the full grown tree, I wanted to remember that there’s always something growing, always something good on the way, even if the last has shed its leaves.

 

How To Make a Bird written by Meg McKinlay and illustrated by Matt Ottley

(Walker Books Australia, 2020)

“Breathe deeply and take your time. The making of a bird is not a thing to be hurried.”

A photo of an internal spread of the picture book 'How To Make A Bird'. It reads: "Breathe deeply and take your time. The making of a bird is not a thing to be hurried."

The metaphor embedded in this stunning picture book is remarkably open ended. What is the bird a symbol of? How is it even possible?

That is, I think, what makes it work so exquisitely. I read this and think, yes, take your time. The making of yourself should be unhurried, filled with hope and belief.

A photo of an internal spread of the picture book 'How To Make A Bird'. It reads: "of open sky and soaring flight. And then your bird will catch your eye and you will know it is time to go and open the window. Open it."

There is a skill in constructing a life; and with tender care, your endeavors can be as deliberate and as natural as a bird taking flight.

A photo of an internal spread of the picture book 'How To Make A Bird'. It reads: "And feel your slowly beating heart fill with a kind of sadness, a kind of happiness. For this is when you will know that you have really made a bird."

That even success comes “with a kind of sadness, a kind of happiness.”

 

Being Edie Is Hard Today by Ben Brashares and Elizabeth Bergeland

(Little Brown, 2019)

“She barely made it to breakfast” is something that I understand. Too often I’ve wanted to crawl back into bed and ignore the world.

Edie is being bullied, but makes it through the day by pretending to be various animals, drawing on their particular characteristics to face her own existence.

A photo of an internal spread of the picture book 'Being Edie Is Hard Today'. It reads: Being Edie was hard today. She barely made it to breakfast. "Please eat your toast, Edie," her mom said. "I'm too tired to eat my toast," Edie replied. "Please sit up, Edie," her mom said. "I can't," Edie said. "My head is too heavy."

More than anything, I think she wants to be seen and acknowledged for who she is, animal characteristics and all.

A photo of an internal spread of the picture book 'Being Edie Is Hard Today'. It reads: "Oh, to be a squid."

“When it was time for bed, Edie found that she had, unfortunately, become a worm.”

This is such a mood. I’m as entertained by this, as I understand exactly what Edie is feeling.

A photo of an internal spread of the picture book 'Being Edie Is Hard Today'. It reads: "When it was time for bed, Edie had found that she had, unfortunately, become a worm. "EDIE! 'Ease come and 'rush your teesh!" "I can't! I don't have teeth! Or hands, even!"

But, ultimately, this book reminds me that it’s okay to cry. The exchange between mother and daughter could be a gentle nod from myself, to myself, saying ‘hey, remember? We’ve talked about this. You’re allowed to let it go.’

A photo of an internal spread of the picture book 'Being Edie Is Hard Today'. It reads: "I learned about it in school," Edie went on. "The clouds get dark and fil with tears and then, when the clouds can't hold any more, the tears f all the way down to the ground, where they help make flowers grow and make streams for animals to drink out of and take baths in.... Edie's mom smiled. "So... does the sky feel better after it cries?" "Oh yeah," Edie said. "The clouds get all fluffy again, and the sun comes out." "You feeling a little fluffier?" her mom asked, pulling her in for a hug. "Yeah. I guess. Like a fluffy baby owl. Owls are nocturnal, you know, so I'm going to stay up all..." "Night night, Edie."

 

Music For Mister Moon written by Philip C. Stead and illustrated by Erin E. Stead

(Noel Porter Books, 2019)

More and more, recently, I’m finding the world overwhelming and want to retreat and hermit myself away. Then I remember that I care. I care about the world, the people in it, and I also care about my own art. That doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes wish that I didn’t have to try and monetize my art (writing) and constantly put myself out there.

A photo of an internal spread of the picture book 'Music For Mister Moon'. It reads: WHEN HARRIET HENKY came down for dinner her parents said, "Someday you will play your cello in a big orchestra, Won't that make you happy! Harriet imagined crowds of people all dressed up like penguins. Her hands became sweaty and her face became hot. "No," she said with a sigh. "I don't think that will make me happy." Harriet pushed her green beans into a neat row.

“Harriet Henry did not want to play in a big orchestra. Harriet Henry wanted to play her cello alone.”

A photo of an internal spread of the picture book 'Music For Mister Moon'. It reads: Harriet peeked her head out the window. "Please, go away," she said. "I want to be alone." Then she sat back down, drew her bow, and -

Sometimes interruptions lead to lashing out.

“Harriet did not want to hurt the owl. I just want to be alone, she thought. Then she sat back down and tried to change her regret into a new teacup.”

A photo of an internal spread of the picture book 'Music For Mister Moon'. It reads: "My name is Harriet Henry," said Harriet. "But you can call me Hank." "I am the moon," said the moon. "But you can call me Mister Moon." "Do you get chilly up in the sky?" asked Hank. "Yes," said Mister Moon. "I do." "When I am chilly," said Hank, "I wear a warm hat."

Harriet’s teacup knocked the moon out of the sky, which leads her to a conversation, and a quest to return him, that she hadn’t anticipated.

A photo of an internal spread of the picture book 'Music For Mister Moon'. It reads: "Do you like being the moon?" asked Hank. "Yes," said Mister Moon. "But sometimes I wish I wasn't the moon." Hank stopped at the broken street lamp. "What would you do if you weren't the moon?" she asked. Mister Moon glowed brightly on the sidewalk below. "I would row in a boat," he answered with a soft smile. "Every night I watch my reflection float from one side of the lake to the other. Just once I'd like to float on the lake for real."

They talk of what they’d do if they weren’t always being what they were supposed to be.

“‘I would row in a boat,’ he answered with a soft smile. ”

A photo of an internal spread of the picture book 'Music For Mister Moon'. It shows the moon resting in a small row boat with a girl holding the oars.

There’s a deep thread in this book that ties passion and dreams to expectations as well as introspections. I feel the need of solitude for healing, and for private joy; art for art’s sake.

“‘I think it’s time for me to go back home,’ said Mister Moon. He cast his cool light across the water without a sound. ‘Will you come, too, and play for cello for me?’
Hank’s hands became sweaty and her face became hot. ‘I do not like to play for crowds,’ she said. ‘But maybe if you close your eyes and promise not to cheer.’
‘I promise,’ said Mister Moon.”

A photo of an internal spread of the picture book 'Music For Mister Moon'. It reads: "Thank you, owls," said Hank. And then, when everything was quiet and still, Hank drew her bow and played her music for no one but Mister Moon.

 

The Stone Baby by Beth Norling

(Lothian Books, 2002)

This book was recommended to me by a colleague, Emma, at one of my early bookshop jobs. It’s hard to categorise, nor succinctly describe the plot, or accurately pinpoint what it’s about. And for all those reasons, it is dear to me.

There’s a note from Beth at the beginning, explaining that the idea came after she had the experience of seeing a remarkably lifelike statute of a shrouded baby on a plinth in a ruined, roofless cathedral.

“I wondered if anyone else had seen this stone baby, or whether it was there for me alone. And then I remembered a time when I was little, the time I first found a stone baby…”

A photo of an internal spread of the picture book 'The Stone Baby'. It reads: "I can't do this all by myself."

Whatever ‘this’ is, there are plenty of times where I’ve felt: “I can’t do this all by myself.”

A photo of an internal spread of the picture book 'The Stone Baby'. It reads: "Help me."

And wanted help, more than anything, even when I have no idea how to ask for it. Or whom to ask.

As the girl in this book undergoes her surreal journey, discovers a baby made of stone, carries it until she can’t any longer, only to pick it back up and continue; eventually, when things are blackest, the baby turns into a flock of tiny birds and urges her to “Let go!”

A photo of an internal spread of the picture book 'The Stone Baby'. It reads: "My little baby, are you broken?", "... Oh...", and then "Let go! Let go! Let go!

Whatever the stone baby represents to others, I understand it to be a part of our own self that we must carry when at times it seems like a useless burden. However, when the transformation takes place, that part of us takes over the labour and we are lifted. Perseverance pays off, as does acceptance of your own grief and trials. The battle to always be in control can take turns with letting go.

“I found it! I found what I was looking for.”

 

Tintinnabula written by Margo Lanagan and illustrated by Rovina Cai

(Little Hare, 2017)

I’ll admit that when I heard Margo Lanagan, one of my favourite authors, was writing a picture book, my anticipation was high. To then be paired with Rovina Cai, who’s art is incredibly stunning and emotive.

When I first heard this read aloud, I was gob smacked. The poetry, the open, rolling voice struck me deeply.

A photo of an internal spread of the picture book 'Tintinnabula'. It reads: "In times of drought and wind, in times of noise, and stress and argument, in times of ill feeling, and in times of fear.

“In times of drought and wind, in times of noise,
and stress and argument,
in times of ill feeling
and in times of fear,
from the bright bare ugly difficult
sweating sun-hot world I go
to Tintinnabula.”

A photo of an internal spread of the picture book 'Tintinnabula'. It reads: "There, I am not too big, too small for anything, too week, too strong. And I am never hungry; I am never sorry."

It’s hard to say what Tintinnabula is, in the context of the book. A place, a haven, a sound of ringing bells. But what is clear to me is the overwhelm described at the beginning of the book, captured so perfectly even as we move away from it in that first sentence.

Because most of all, the feeling I’m left with after reading this picture book is one of hope, peace, resolve and relief.

A photo of an internal spread of the picture book 'Tintinnabula'. It reads: "Who rings those bells? Who waits in that good place beyond that rising, falling hill? Who sings among those trees?"

And the answer to the question it poses:

“Who rings those bells? Who waits
in that good place beyond that rising,
falling hill? Who sings among those trees?”

A photo of an internal spread of the picture book 'Tintinnabula'. It reads: "It's my own self who rings and waits and sings. Myself all calmly, coolly comes to meet me, walks towards me, through the silver rains ..."

“It’s my own self who rings and waits and sings.
Myself all calmly, coolly comes to meet me,
walks towards me, through the silver rains…
of Tintinnabula.”

How I long to meet myself upon the journey.

 

The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken

(Dial Books, 2017)

“It started with one mistake.”

A photo of an internal spread of the picture book 'The Book of Mistakes'. It reads: Making the other other even bigger was another mistake.

How many times in my life have I made mistakes? I’m sure none of us could fathom the answer to that question.

This picture book, superbly illustrates the power of creativity, working with your mistakes. How letting them change your course of action with grace and acceptance that leads to wonders not discovered if your artwork was scrapped with each error.

A photo of an internal spread of the picture book 'The Book of Mistakes'. It shows a girl wearing roller skates, slightly off the ground.

“But the roller skates?
Those were definitely not a mistake.”

A photo of an internal spread of the picture book 'The Book of Mistakes'. It reads: Even the ink smudges scatted across the sky look as if they could be leaves - like they'd always wanted to be lifted up and carried.

Just like the ink smudges that really were leaves all along – I feel lifted up and carried by the possibility.

“And what about the girl?”

A photo of an internal spread of the picture book 'The Book of Mistakes'. It reads: Do you see -

“Do you see
how with each mistake
she is becoming?”

A photo of an internal spread of the picture book 'The Book of Mistakes'. It reads: "she is becoming?"

I confess:
that line made me cry.

I am she. Becoming. I saw myself, and how my mistakes have lead me to where I am today, carrying my big, bruised, beating heart.

~

So in some ways, all these picture books contribute to the way I learn about myself and those around me. How I continue to learn, into my ongoing adulthood.

They are all there,
“bright and vivid
quietly waiting
just as you imagined it would be.”

A photo of an internal spread of the picture book 'The Red Tree'. It reads: "just as you imagined it would be"

1 Comment

Charlotte

I love this article so much Michael- thank you

June 11, 2024 at 9:11 pm ·

Leave a Reply