Author Madeleine L’Engle once wrote that, if she has something complex to say, something too difficult for adults to accept, then she writes it in a book for children. She added, “Children still haven’t closed themselves off with fear of the unknown, fear of revolution, or the scramble for security.” I think the best children’s book authors know this, including the authors and illustrators of the two books here today.
Ian Lendler’s One Day a Dot: The Story of You, the Universe, and Everything, illustrated by Shelli Paroline and Braden Lamb, is a picture book attempting, in part, to capture for preschool readers nothing less than the Big Bang and the line it follows to modern-day existence. Readers follow the formation of the stars, planets, and universe as a whole to first life; to creatures on water and land; to humans; to civilization; to technology; to now. Using simple language and concepts, Lendler makes accessible to the youngest of readers this story of life, and the illustrators use repeated circular patterns (it all begins with a dot, after all) and busy, but never overwhelming, compositions to animate it.
But in my mind the beating heart of this book is the question it poses at its close, one of wonder and mystery. And it is one that it just so happens I was trying to articulate to my own children recently—and failing spectacularly in doing so. For this reason, I may have yawped a little happy yawp when I read Lendler’s book for the first time.
By “mystery” I mean this: We know about the Big Bang. (Thanks, observational astronomy and particle physics.) We know how it all began. But what was before that? What is beyond the outer edges of it? Could there be something? You can easily imagine how I rambled incoherently as I tried to express this question to my children. I’m no Plato. Celestial mechanics are not my strong point. (As a child, I used to wonder about the same thing, trying to imagine if there were, anywhere, an end to the big, wide universe.)
But here’s what Lendler does that happens to capture the metaphysical ramblings bouncing around haphazardly in my brain: He opens the book with “One day a dot appeared.” After that, the creation of life ensues — nearly 40 pages of it, as described above. But on the final page? We see an illustration of a child drawing a dot on paper, and we read that humans have gotten to the point where they are pretty clever, but “there was one question that they could not answer … Where did that first dot come from?” The end.
BOOM. Yes. That is what I meant but couldn’t say. (Thanks, Lendler.) It gives me chills to read, and it may very well do the same for the children with whom you share this book. Most definitely, it will be a conversation-starter. One day, a dot. The next day, captivating cosmological conversations.
Sarah Jacoby’s Forever or a Day asks a similarly complex, but entirely different, paradoxical question: How does one capture time? Time is, she describes at one point, like a drumbeat: “ba dum, ba dum, ba dum.”
The pages of her story follow a young child with his parents. He travels to a shore, visiting what look like his grandparents. Along the way, he ponders time—yet Jacoby never explicitly calls forth its name (other than the illustration you see at the story’s launch of a newspaper truck with “TIMES” on the side, as well as a mention of “time” on the final spread). “It can be precise, like pouring the first cup of tea, or picking the perfect shoe,” she writes. “It’s especially clear when you’re late.” The boy, on a long train ride, wonders if this is “forever” he’s feeling; later, it occurs to him that the more he tries to hold it, “the better it hides.” In other words, time might fly when you’re having fun, as the common cliché goes. But, the boy wonders, where does it go? In the end, he comes to understand that he can’t hold it and that “we’ve only got what we’ve got.” So amorphous, yet as logical (and beautifully bittersweet) as I think anyone can put it.
Jacoby’s evocative figurative language makes for an inviting read, and her soft and velvety impressionistic mixed-media illustrations—which are, on some spreads, reminiscent of the style of British illustrator Laura Carlin—are captivating. This contemplative, almost meditative, book makes for a good one-on-one lap-time read with the children in your life for whom you like to give your own time.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
ONE DAY A DOT. Text copyright © 2018 by Ian Lendler. Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Shelli Paroline and Braden Lamb. Illustration used by permission of the publisher, First Second, New York.
FOREVER OR A DAY. Copyright © 2018 by Sarah Jacoby. Illustration used by permission of the publisher, Chronicle Books, San Francisco.