In the past several years, there seems to have been an upsurge in the number of articles floating around the Internet—they are certainly popular at social media sites—that include tips for introverts and extroverts on how to play nicely with others. I see more for introverts – either because more of my friends in the world of social media lean that way or because we hapless introverts elicit more pity. We see things like: “20 Signs You’re Secretly an Introvert,” “How to Know if You’re an Extroverted Introvert,” “What Introverts Need to Know to Be Happy,” and the like.
One thing motherhood has taught me is that there are introverts, and then there are introverts. My oldest child, in particular, is happy to go all day with her head in a book, not having initiated a conversation with anyone at school. She’s friendly, albeit shy. She’s kind to others. But she’s going to be the quietest one in the room. She’s happy this way, too. I acknowledge that—who knows—one day she may blossom and chat everyone up. (If she doesn’t, that’s fine too.) I think, at the risk of sounding like one of those aforementioned pop psychology pieces, there are levels to introversion and that even those at the far end of the spectrum can be happy. Or as my favorite musician sings in a song off her last album, “When I’m alone … I’m not lonely.”
This year, thanks to French-Canadian author-illustrator Jacques Goldstyn, readers can meet a children’s book character just like this. Bertolt, translated from the French by Claudia Zoe Bedrick, so sensitively and beautifully captures introversion that it’s quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a children’s book. The protagonist of the book, an unnamed boy who tells the story from his point of view, spends his day alone, playing in nature. He doesn’t have some epiphany at the close of the book about how he needs more friends or needs to find his voice (metaphorically or literally), and he doesn’t struggle with shyness or introversion and then find a pal at the book’s close. This is precisely what we see in a great majority of children’s books out there, and that’s fine. But Goldstyn knows that some children find happiness in other ways, even when “[s]ometimes people don’t like what’s different” (as the boy notes at the beginning of the book).
The book opens memorably: “Darn, darn, and more darn. Where’s my mitten?” The boy has lost his, and when he heads to Lost & Found, he comes out with two mismatched gloves. The protagonist knows he’s different – and not just because at one point, some other boys point and laugh at him. In fact, Goldstyn writes:
The boy’s favorite pastime is climbing one particular tree, an old oak, which he has named Bertolt. The boy imagines Spring arriving; he can’t wait for it, and he knows he’ll stand in front of massive Bertolt with a big grin on his face. He longs to play in the tree – to climb it and watch, unseen in the tree’s leaves, the goings-on in town. The boy is “never alone” in his tree: He knows that, once Spring comes, he’ll witness birds, squirrels, bees, and other intriguing visitors in the tree’s branches. “I know everything about Bertolt,” he tells the reader.
So, when Spring arrives, he runs wildly and deliriously toward Bertolt. All the trees he sees on his way have “burst into bloom.” Sadly, Bertolt has not. The boy patiently waits, praying for his tall, once-leafy friend. Finally, he accepts it: “Bertolt is dead.”
Now, I’m no arborist, nor am I fluent in the ways of professional tree care, but I think that oaks can, indeed, die from the likes of fungal infections or pathogens, carpenter ants, etc. The boy doesn’t know the culprit, but something has left his friend lifeless. He’s at a loss. “When a cat dies, we know it right away,” he thinks to himself. We also know how to respond: we bury those creatures. He determines he must do something before Bertolt is destroyed. He has an idea.
The rest of the book is wordless and brings readers—via Goldstyn’s spirited, graceful drawings, which appear to be rendered via ink and colored pencil—the boy’s solution, both poignant and funny and one that brings the narrative full-circle. (To be sure, there are also other funny moments in this story; for one, look for the cat at the screen door when the boy lifts some clothespins behind his mother’s back.) Sorry to be a tease, but I can’t bring myself to ruin the beautiful ending for you. Besides, I want you to find a copy of this book, come mid-April at its release (check your library or favorite bookstore), because it’s moving and smart and lovely. If you do that, you can let the surprise unfold for you as you read. Far be it from me to take that experience from you.
There is a sweetness that pervades this story, though it’s never cloying. And I find it remarkable, this book that both acknowledges and honors the fact that some children enjoy being alone and that, furthermore, they get great satisfaction and comfort from quiet, from introspection, from playing in nature. More books like that, please.
This one’s a keeper. Share it with introverts and extroverts alike. The former will appreciate the mirror the story holds up to them; the latter will walk away with a better understanding of those quiet kids in their presence.
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.