Books With Pictures

I’ve been thinking about books for hard times. It’s not only the political chaos, it is the personal as well. A friend went to the doctor because he felt exhausted, and was given less than a year to live. The ice is melting at the ends of the earth, and our coastal cities are heading underwater like Atlantis. The brain has a hard time wrapping itself around these things. You want distraction, but when you’re in shock you have no attention span. The friend who  was diagnosed wrote on Facebook:  “Can anyone suggest something good to read? All I can handle right now is Calvin and Hobbes. “

 A comic book seems like a good idea to me under the circumstances.   It’s a book with pictures, after all, and these are the very first books we held in our hands, puzzling at the shape of the letters and how easily they transformed in the mouths of grown ups into what we wanted most of all: a story.  The front piece of The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell, with “decorations” by Maurice Sendak reads:

“Say what you like, but such things do

happen—not often, but they do happen.”

It’s an invitation and a dare.  The pages of this small, nearly square book are thick like an artist’s sketchpad, and each chapter is divided by a drawing: a cliff with a cabin on the beach.  The sea with moon and clouds.  The characters in the book are a hunter, a mermaid, a bear, a lynx and finally a boy.  But there are no figures in any of the drawings.  They are places to enter, caves to peer into; there is a bow hanging from the branch of a tree for the reader to pick up and try for herself, the arrows are leaning against a log just below.  The book was published in 1965, at a time when traditional families were fracturing, and new ways of forming a family were being explored.  The Animal Family is a love story not only between the Hunter and the Mermaid, but between all of the different creatures that find their way home together.  As Jarrell writes, “The hunter and the mermaid were so different from each other that it seemed to them, finally, that they were exactly alike; they lived together and were happy.”  It is a book that offers not only escape but solace.  Each of the characters enters a world they have never known before, and there is an acceptance that much will never be understood.

When the lynx plays too rough the hunter tells him: ‘“Velvet paws!  Velvet paws!”  The Mermaid, who is learning the hunter’s language asks, “What’s velvet?”

‘“I don’t know,” the hunter said.  ‘But it’s what you say to a cat to get him to keep his claws in.  My mother used to say it on the boat.’  So the hunter said it and the mermaid and the lynx understood it, each in his own way—a little scrap of velvet there between the forest and the sea.”’

There are times when a book can be your home, a shell that you carry on your back.  A book with pictures is even better; you can build a whole landscape with that.  You are in some hard places, the waiting room at the hospital, the departure lounge at the airport on your way to something unimaginable, to name just a few.  But if you have the right book you can pitch a tent and build a fire, right there on the shore of disaster.

The Animal Family

(this post was adapted from a short essay originally published in Postroad magazine, as “The Animal Family”)

© Rebecca Chace, 2009 - 2018 | Contact | Beka Blog archive | site banner art from Superb Lyrebird, © 2012, by Ken Buhler