Nina Laden’s Once Upon a Memory, illustrated by Renata Liwska, brings to mind a Q&A I did weeks ago with author Kate Banks. Children need both the quiet, reflective books, as well as the fast-paced, action-packed stories, Banks said, remembering how an editor recently advised her that one of her manuscripts was “too quiet for today’s market.”
Today, I write about one of those quiet, contemplative books. In it, a young child, first seen having a tea party with some static plush animals and his pet dog, watches a feather fly through his open window. The boy picks it up, wondering if a feather once remembers it was a bird. This sparks for the boy a series of philosophical musings about memory and even the cycles of life.
Does something like a garden remember it was once a pea? Laden asks in her gently rhyming text. Cake used to be a grain. Ocean was once rain. A statue was once a stone. An island was once unknown. Is each of these material objects capable of knowing from where it came? Liwska uses the boy’s toy animals in her gentle, soft-focused spreads, bringing them to life as the boy contemplates his questions. These are weighty questions, those that children are wont to ask when figuring out the world.
When I ask her about this book, Laden calls these “origin” questions. “I was walking on our neighborhood beach on Lummi Island in the San Juan islands in Washington state,” she told me. “It was June 15th in 2009. I spied a beautiful feather on the beach and picked it up.…It had belonged to a bald eagle, and I thought about the Native American legend that eagle feathers are to be left where they are found so that they can return to the heavens, and the thought crossed my mind, ‘does a feather remember it once was a bird?’ Does that feather ‘fly’ back to heaven like the bird it once was?…I started to write a poem in my head which became ‘Does a Feather Remember?’ The original poem contained eight couplets, and they reflected memories of ‘origins,’ like ‘does a chair remember it once was a tree?’ Does an ocean remember it once was rain?’ ”
Not everything the boy in the book ponders is a material object either. Can work remember it used to be play? What about night? What about love? What about families? The book’s last line—“Will you remember you once were…a child?”—is the real kicker. “I continued working on the poem,” Laden adds, “and submitted it to Connie Hsu at Little, Brown.…Connie helped me build on the poem. I started to find the flow to take the ‘origins and remembrances’ and make them build on each other, ultimately bringing the bigger and bigger thoughts back around to the child reading the book, ‘will you remember you once were a child?’ ”
I venture to say this final question will put a lump in some adults’ throats, but what I like about Laden’s text here is that it’s not the type of moment that stops there. That is, more emotionally-manipulative picture books might cause the grown-up to tear up but fly right over the heads of children. Children, who are not capable of great sentimentality, aren’t likely to care deeply for such books. But here Laden asks a valid, thought-provoking question for children of a certain age: Will you remember all this? It’s a powerful moment—and a doozy of a closing to the book.
Liwska shows the boy here as a man, with his own children, looking at the same box of toys he once had on the book’s first spread, which he’s now pulled out of storage. He’s also looking at old childhood photos. This all occurs before the final spread during which we see him as a child again—clearly, the man does remember his childhood year—and this time all his plush animals are alive at the tea party. One is bringing him some cookies. The dinosaur is stirring his tea. Another is chomping on crackers.
It’s a lullaby of a picture book, as the starred Kirkus review notes.
And, yes, child readers need those quiet lullabies, too. Here’s to those authors who do them well—and to the publishing companies that bring their stories to readers.
ONCE UPON A MEMORY. Copyright ©2013 by Nina Laden. Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Renata Liwska. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Little, Brown and Company, New York.
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.