Friday, June 1, 2012

The Circle Game

"The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live long-year, like the highest seat on a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning." --Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting

In my house there are a handful of gold-standard picture books--books that my daughter and I come back to hundreds of times over, books that make us sigh with deep contentment and whose pictures and words we know by heart. Roxaboxen is one, so is The Day the Babies Crawled Away Pumpkin Soup, Gifts, The Seven Silly Eaters, Sheila Rae the Brave, Mirette on the High Wire, and Blueberries for Sal all disappear and resurface with the tides. Sometimes these books even change the language of our daily lives. "How goes the work?", I'll ask at the end of the school day? "Quack" is the inevitable response thanks to Farmer Duck.

Sheree Fitch's Sleeping Dragons All Around is firmly on our list. Fitch's language, it is Pop Rocks on our tongues. "You bold and brutish bursten-bellied beasts!", my daughter will yell at the robins who sometimes nest over our back door. Fortunately for young readers, this book and a couple of Fitch's other classics have been republished by Nimbus and are now once again in print. For the last 8 years, however, it looked as if Fitch had moved on from the picture book genre altogether, choosing to focus on writing for babies, children, young adults and adults instead--anyone but the picture book crowd, it would seem. But hey ho! Fitch is set to release a new picture book, Night Sky Wheel Ride, at the beginning of June and I just happen to have a copy of it to hand.

Night Sky Wheel Ride (Tradewind Books) tells the story of a girl and her brother as they take their first ride on a Ferris wheel. The story itself is based on a memory from Fitch's own childhood and the book serves as a poignant tribute to the sibling bond. The book is also magical in its use of both language and illustration.

"First stop--
cotton candy shop
       round round round
a sugar cloud's spun
melts sticky quick
on the tips of our tongues"

This book is definitely a read-aloud, but make sure you do your mouth warm-ups first. Fitch's wordplay and affinity for onomatopoeia and assonance mean that your lips, teeth and tongue will get a full workout. My 7-year-old daughter was so enamoured with the book's language she insisted I videotape her reading it in full expressive style. She was "fizzy with the dizzy reeling / fuzzy with the Ferris wheel feeling."

But a picture book is not simply about language; it is about the marriage of language with illustration, and it is this marriage which makes Night Sky Wheel Ride soar above the fairgrounds. Fitch has been paired with some very good illustrators over the years but I've never seen one get her in the way that Montreal-based Yayo truly gets her and what she does with words. His illustrations for this book are imaginative, colourful, and associative; they draw in the cosmos through the lens of daily life. In Yayo's hands, a fair can be anything from a laundry basket and dryer to the seasonal cycle of an apple tree. Cotton candy becomes trees and flower seeds float off as balloons.

A favourite word and image pairing for me is this one: 

As mermaids and children descend in a paddle-boat Ferris wheel with bathtub carts, the text reads:

"See out to sea, Sister.
Can you hear the mermaids murmur
beluga whales sing
feel the whirling stir
of every little humming phosphorescent thing?"

This is no ordinary Ferris wheel ride, nor is this an ordinary book. Like so many great children's books, it tells a simple tale well; yet bubbling throughout and beyond is the story of joy, of memory, of life, love and loss, and of imagination and the reaching for all that lies beyond. This book makes me cry when I read it but not in a way that feels manipulative or negatively nostalgic--the tears are those I shed in the presence of fulsome beauty. I know that's high praise for a review, but there it is.

When I first read it, my mind leaped to the opening image of a Ferris wheel in Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting. I pulled out that book, reread the prologue and realized it all fits together--whether one is talking about image and illustration, sky and ground, youth and age, or fate and conscious choice:

"But things can come together in strange ways. The wood was at the center, the hub of the wheel. All wheels must have a hub. A Ferris wheel has one, as the sun is the hub of the wheeling calendar. Fixed points they are, and best left undisturbed, for without them, nothing holds together." -- Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting