E.B White considered Stuart Little’s search for the lovely bird Margalo a quest that “symbolizes the continuing journey that everybody takes — in search of what is perfect and unattainable. This is perhaps too elusive an idea to put into a book for children, but I put it in anyway.” E.B. White often wrote about finding beauty and wonder where it wasn’t expected. Charlotte’s Web wouldn’t have the same glimmer without the manure piles and we’re reminded that its hero, such a generous and wise writer, is also bloodthirsty. Charlotte can’t help it, but she has a taste for flies.
Picture books also take on the theme of keeping a clear eye out for beauty. There was a lot of excitement in our children’s book circles when Last Stop on Market Street recently won the Newbery Award, whose shiny stickers are most often placed on novels, deeming the words the most distinguished of the year. The picture book by Matt de la Peña is about a boy learning to see the beauty around him in a rundown neighborhood depicted in collage, acrylics, and “a bit of digital manipulation” by Christian Robinson, who was also honored by the ALA for his art. Buildings look dilapidated. People aren’t dressed in the height of fashion. But the boy’s Nana, whose wisdom might come from the church we see the two leave at the beginning, offers leading questions to prompt him to second or deeper glances. A change comes when CJ hears a man playing music on the bus, with his delight shown in a joyful two-page spread. Still, after passing “Crumbling sidewalks and broken-down doors, graffiti-tagged windows and boarded-up stores,” Nana must point out a rainbow arcing over the soup kitchen, where the child becomes helper and friend.
In hero’s journey terms, Nana is the guide toward this change, while in another picture book published in 2015, a little girl in a red-hooded cloak walks with her father, who’s often on his cell phone, staying in the center of her own journey. In Sidewalk Flowers, a girl finds flowers in the cracks of sidewalks or where others might see weeds in a city that looks generally bleak, even in the park with its leafless trees. I’ve “read” wordless picture books before, but I believe this is the first one where an author is credited. Apparently Jon Arno Lawson envisioned the story and sequence of images done in graphic novel form by Sydney Smith, often black and white except for the girl’s cloak at the beginning, where we see birds.
After she leaves flowers to honor a dead bird, the city is shown more often in color, as if to suggest that acknowledging what’s hard can let one see more. The girl also gets closer to home, and her father puts away his cell phone. She bestows flowers to her mother, brother, and sister, and finally herself, looking up at more birds in a big sky.
One of my favorite books on this theme is Tar Beach, the first book for children written and illustrated by Faith Ringgold, who won a Caldecott Honor in 1992 for this and went on to create more than a dozen more books for children. These acrylic paintings were based on one of her story quilts, and is layered with memoir, history and myth, particularly African American myths of flight.. The eight year old girl at the center of the book set in Harlem in 1939 is both dreamer and agent of change, imagining that she can wear the George Washington Bridge, which she can see from her roof, like a diamond necklace. She touches lightly on discrimination, mentioning that her father helps build a union building that he can’t join. Family problems are suggested when Mommy cries when the father goes to look for work and doesn’t come home.
All these books remind us that finding beauty can take some effort, dreaming, and trusted helpers. And it’s worth it. E.B. White wrote, “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.”