Despite my better judgment, though only in moments of desperation, I sometimes find myself asking children the kinds of questions that are often asked of them by grown-ups. My brain tells me not to do it, but my mouth seems to have a mind of its own. “Do you like school?” I may ask in an excessively chipper voice. Children loathe small talk, not to mention that the how-old-are-you and what’s-your-favorite-class and is-that-a-cat-on-your shoes?! kinds of questions sometimes put pressure on them (or in the case of the latter question, are too stupid to answer), so this can quickly turn disastrous.
I know better. We all know better. But we goofy grown-ups often end up doing it anyway. To make things worse, those kinds of shallow questions aren’t exactly ones that tap into the deep creative wells of children.
Author-illustrator Matt Myers knows just how deep those wells go, as evidenced by his newest picture book, Hum and Swish. It is a book that pays tribute, and beautifully so, to the quiet, determined, creative inner worlds of children.
A young girl named Jamie plays at the shore. “Jamie hums,” we read. “The waves swish.” These two perfect, economic sentences communicate a great deal about the focused, intense, and almost meditative play of the girl. She gathers rocks and shells, and she builds in the sand. Various people pass by and ask questions. First, it is adults who saunter by, and they ask the kind of vague questions for which they may not even expect an answer, but their questions signal: I have spotted you, and aren’t you adorable?! Underneath their words is a come-on-give-me-a-smile kind of subtext, the kind many children hate. “What are you making there?” and “Aren’t you clever?” and “Isn’t that pretty?” they ask. To each of these, Jamie responds with a simple “I don’t know.” She’s busy, thanks very much, and her creation is a work-in-progress, perhaps even something she can’t quite yet define for herself.
Jamie even gives frustrated glares to another child (a boy asks, “What’s that supposed to be?”) and to teens, who stop, take a photo on a cell phone, and declare how “cute” Jamie and her creation are. Her creative juices are flowing, and she’d really rather not discuss what she’s building. All those interruptions. What is a girl to do? Why, she keeps her head down — and keeps humming. She takes a break to stare out at the ocean, because the “sea tells stories, but it doesn’t ask questions.” Hum. Swish.
Jamie finally has a moment of connection with a beach-goer — a gray-haired woman, who sets up an easel and some paints. She asks no questions of Jamie, and it’s the first person at whom Jamie looks with interest. Jamie even finds herself asking the woman what she is making. If you guess that she responds with an I don’t know quite yet, you’d be right. Jamie’s found a like-minded soul, and they both quietly get back to their respective work.
Here, the swish that once belonged to the ocean is attributed to the swish of a paintbrush in the woman’s jar. Hum. Swish. Both, side by side, are deeply involved in their work. Both exist in a kind of reverie. And they have mad, if unspoken, respect for one another. It’s a lovely series of spreads here that close out the book.
Children aren’t automatons, expected to answer on command. And many of them, like many adults, find it challenging to open up to strangers. Myers, whose acrylic and oil illustrations showcase a jeweled blue shade that steals the show here, understands this. He also understands that it’s easy for children to get into the zone, as they say. Adults might need to brush up on this, as seen by things like “5 Steps for Focusing Your Mind and Getting into the Zone” or “3 Tricks to Get Your Creative Juices Flowing” or some such internet miscellany. But for many children it comes as naturally as the waves that gently slap the shore on a sunny day. Swish.
This deeply reverent nod to the deeply complex play of children is a breath of fresh air. I almost feel bad attributing so many words here to a story about the need for silence, but imagine me whispering. Share this one with your favorite art-making children before summer ends.
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.
HUM AND SWISH. Text and illustrations copyright © 2019 by Matt Myers. Illustration above published by permission of Neal Porter Books / Holiday House, New York.