Picture books build bridges in many ways – between children and the adults who share children’s books with them, between children and the life-long pleasures of literature, and (my favorite of all) between children and art appreciation. Two new children’s books on shelves—Lizi Boyd’s I Wrote You a Note and Jacqueline Ayer’s The Paper-Flower Tree—are all about characters who build bridges themselves – and in more ways than one.
Let’s start with Lizi Boyd’s newest, a book dedicated to “note makers and note keepers.” It’s the story of a girl who writes a note to a friend. And before that friend reads it, the note is intercepted by a host of wild animals in the outdoors where the girl pens it. The animals put the note to various uses: Turtle makes a sail for his raft; Spider uses it as a bridge to cross a stream; Snail uses it as a house; and so on.
I love to see new books from Boyd, whose has been honored by both the New York Times Best Illustrated Award, as well as the BolognaRagazzi Award. She consistently employs elegant lines and shapes that add up to offerings that are seemingly simple, yet a lot is going on underneath. In this new story, her gouache illustrations are dominated by cool, muted blues, grays, and pea-greens, making the purples, yellows, reds, and oranges that appear in the flowers, creatures, and mushrooms of the girl’s outdoor adventure really pop off the page.
“I wrote you a note. Did you find it?” are repeated throughout the story, which adds to the book’s overall steady, pleasurable, and reassuring rhythms. In the end, the wind finds her note, dropping into her friend’s hands. The girl has built him a literal bridge between two rocks, an invitation to play.
It’s a story of exploration and connection, and it captures the timeless appeal of a simple note of invitation. In this day and age of texting and emails, it’s refreshing to see a character write a note on paper, one that brings about a memorable day of joy for all the creatures involved. (Don’t forget to slip off the dustjacket to see the different cover underneath this lovingly designed book.)
Ayer’s The Paper-Flower Tree, sub-titled: A Tale from Thailand, isn’t exactly new. It was first published in 1959 by the legendary Margaret McElderry at Harcourt, Brace and Company, but Enchanted Lion Books has brought it back in print. (Don’t miss Ayer’s Nu Dang and His Kite, which will be reprinted next month, also from Enchanted Lion.)
The story, exhibiting a picture book’s ability to build a bridge between children and cultures all over the world, is set in a small village in Thailand. A young girl named Miss Moon lives there. One day, she meets “a little man,” carrying colored paper tied to a bamboo stick. She is enchanted by this, and he tells her that it’s a paper-flower tree. “It was then she knew that she had to have one,” Ayer writes.
After he gives her, free of cost, a small blue flower from the tree, he tells her to plant it. Pointing to a tiny black bead, he tells her it’s a seed and that perhaps it will grow. Enthusiastically, she plants it. She even builds a roof for it. She waits months and months for it to blossom. The people in her community tell her she’s wasting her time.
But all is not lost. When her path crosses with the man once again, she expresses her dismay. The next morning, there it is in her yard – a glorious, colorful paper-flower tree.
The book captures, in a way that is completely devoid of any sentimentality, the persistent, stubborn hope of young children. Though the man, whom she calls “grandfather,” never promised her that a tree would grow from the seed, she believed it would. Even after everyone around her tells her in the end that, clearly, the man returned and attached some of his own paper flowers to a stick, the girl dismisses them:
In some spreads, the book has the same muted shade of cool blue in common with the blue you can see on the cover of Boyd’s book. But Ayer juxtaposes this with page turns that reveal swaths of bold yellows and teals (printed here in Pantone spot colors and the CMYK color model). It’s striking. Her line drawings are exquisite – loose-lined and carefree. She captures body language well, especially in Miss Moon, as she patiently waits for her tree to grow, much like a descendant to the little boy in Crockett Johnson’s The Carrot Seed, published 14 years prior. Ayer brings Thailand to vivid life, and Enchanted Lion has put great care and consideration, as they always do, into the book’s reproduction. You’re going to want to hold a copy in hand to feel the cover and pages and take in Ayer’s artwork.
As you read this, the American Library Association will be holding their annual conference, during which they will celebrate award-winning children’s books that build bridges. If I were attending this year, I’d raise my glass to them, but as it stands, I’ll do it from afar in Tennessee. Here’s to all the connections children’s books make in the lives of readers.
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.