I’m going to tell you about my most favorite children’s book ever. I bought it unknowingly at a garage sale in a big box of other books, and despite the setting, it looked brand new. It is called All the World, and it is a poem by Liz Scanlon. I love it. I got choked up the first four dozen times I read it – not because it’s a sad book, but because it’s a beautiful book. I seriously want to cut the pages out and frame them and hang them on the walls in Eli’s room so I can gaze upon them while I rock him to sleep, and so he can gaze upon them and somehow thereby internalize their profound meaning. The book is about an ordinary day in the life of one little community, and it is also about the importance of people’s interconnectedness within their communities. And the book derives so much of its meaning from the beautiful illustrations by the inimitable Marla Frazee.
All the World begins with the words “Rock, stone, pebble, sand/ body, shoulder, arm, hand/ a moat to dig / a shell to keep / all the world is wide and deep.” Frazee weaves these words into story with her illustrations of a brother and sister playing at the beach in the early morning. As their days goes on, the children travel to the farmer’s market in their red pick up truck, where their paths intersect with numerous other families – two women on a tandem bicycle, a grandfather with three children and a puppy in tow, a baby riding in a carrier, an older couple, a family riding in an old VW van – who then likewise become the characters in the story. One of the themes that really comes through in the illustrations is the importance of place – modeled after Frazee’s home on the California coast – to shaping this community’s lifestyle and interactions. Various members of this community proceed to take a walk on a hillside, climb a gorgeous old tree, and play at a little ocean inlet, until a rainstorm sends them all packing, after which some end up at a local café (Butter, flour, big black pot / all the world is cold and hot), and then head home at sunset.
And this is the part where I get choked up, because there is this one page, where the sun is setting, and colors are muted to oranges and purples and grays, and you see the silhouettes of people stopping to stand out on a pier and watch the sunset and it says: A fire takes away the chill / all the world can hold quite still. And the stillness of the moment is so evident in the illustration that, reading it at bedtime, after a long and busy day with a toddler, I am profoundly grateful for the invitation to take in this moment of stillness, to pause and enjoy it with Eli as if we too were watching the sunset from the pier.
The story moves into the evening with a gathering of nanas, papas, cousins kin / piano, harp, and violin / babies passed from neck to knee / all the world is you and me – and we see the lively, warm togetherness of neighbors and family, passing the babies from neck to knee, and playing music together. When the day is finally done, we peek into the quiet, intimate moments before sleep – the older couple brushing teeth together, a little girl on the phone, the grandfather patting the puppy, the chefs from the café leaning cheek to cheek, taking a whiff of their delicious soup. All around this little community, the families are reaching out to loved ones for those last little connections of the day, honoring the primacy of all the world is you and me. But they also take a step back to recognize their interconnectedness and we end: Hope and peace and love and trust / all the world is / all of us.
You’re tearing up, too, aren’t you?
Two years into my daily practice of reading picture books, I have come to a deeper appreciation of the role of illustrations (and their creators) in making picture books work as educative, entertaining story-telling forms for children – and on rare occasions, even sing. I was baffled to learn, some years ago, that most picture books start with text from the author, and the illustrator works, usually completely separately, to add the pictures to the story. This set up hardly makes any sense to me, because when you look at really good picture books they are seamless; it seems that the project must have been co-planned and indeed the product of a great collaboration from the start. But no.
Hence my admiration for Marla Frazee. We’ve discovered a few illustrators that we really love – Kadir Nelson, Amy Schwartz, Alexandra Day – but Frazee just tops them all. She typically illustrates stories that, like All the World, are long-form poems or even songs (e.g. The New Baby Train, a song by Woody Guthrie), with strong rhyme schemes. More than any illustrator I’ve encountered, she has the incredible ability to amplify a story’s meaning: without her illustrations, the text would be a lovely poem, but limited in what it conveys. In some cases, like All the World, there are not even characters or narratives obvious in the words themselves; they need to be created through the illustrator’s work. Frazee adds layers of nuance and real social texture, so that the book becomes also about ties of community, the treasures of place and our environment, the rich emotional terrain of family life, and the beauty of human diversity.
Eli and I first encountered Frazee’s art in the board book Everywhere Babies, a gift from my mom when Eli was born. Thus he began hearing the rhymes of Susan Meyers’ text when he was about three days old. And it’s a lovely poem: “Every day, everywhere, babies are born /fat babies, thin babies, small babies, tall babies /winter and spring babies, summer and fall babies…”. Each page has another verse about all babies, “every day, everywhere,” as the text conveys these universal truths of what babies require and what they mean to their families.
This message is brought full force into the modern American context through the illustrations: Frazee includes babies of all skin colors, some with two moms or two dads, all doing the same things through their first year of life. One of the things that Toby and I have lamented, especially early on, was that we found it hard to find books for Eli that were not about animals, and that had illustrations that represented communities like the one we live in – with many different types of kids and families, all engaged in the same endeavor of loving each other.
I’m amazed to look back and realize we’ve come a little ways since we first read Everywhere Babies (which we still enjoy). Eli has begun to listen to longer stories, not just stories that have more text on each page but ones that have much more complex narratives and are possibly slightly or even significantly above his comprehension level. I had been aware of this gradual shift but fully realized it when he not only tolerated but asked for a re-reading of one of my favorites: The Seven Silly Eaters, written by Mary Ann Hoberman and illustrated by Frazee.
Like All the World, the book came into our household unexpectedly: on Toby’s birthday last year, his co-workers gave him a birthday gift of children’s stories about birthdays to share with Eli (this was not the last time such a thing happened, either, when people give us gifts that are actually meant for Eli). We each read it and tried to read it aloud to Eli, but he was eight months old, and it didn’t quite engage his attention. But, never mind – because I fell completely in love with it.
The story is ostensibly a birthday story because it includes the birthday of the main character, Mrs. Peters, but interestingly it might also be considered a birthday story in that it alludes the birth of all seven – yes, seven – of Mrs. Peters’s children. The main theme of the story, though, is not birthdays but eating habits: each of these seven children has a favorite food that they like prepared in a very specific way. For example, Peter, the oldest son, likes warm milk, and Hoberman writes: “He did not like his milk served cold / he did not like his milk served hot / he liked it warm and he would not / drink it if he was not sure / it was the proper temperature.” The rhyme scheme is absolutely brilliant (and this particular line was oft-repeated in our house as we heated a picky Eli’s bottles for exactly 28 seconds in the microwave…).
Well, imagine seven kids with such specifications. Mrs. Peters wears herself out trying to keep up with the demands of their growing appetites. As the story goes on, we see family life in the Peters’ household grow ever more busy and complex. The family starts with a dog and acquires a cat that then has kittens. The laundry piles up, the toys multiply, the children sometimes play well and read to each other, and sometimes squabble. In one picture, it’s raining, and some of the children are obviously sick with colds, in their pajamas draped under and around the kitchen table (recalling that time when everyone was sick with ear infections when there was a hurricane going on – you know the time I mean). And though the text itself never mentions a father figure, Frazee draws him right in there, the always calm, supportive, and loving dad, who must surely be implied in a family with seven children (as Frazee notes in this interview). And anyone who has lived in the midst of family life, who has children or who had siblings, will recognize some of their own experience here.
Perhaps for me, as a mother, one of the things I most identify with in this story is the way that Frazee draws Mrs. Peters. She is a loving mother, driven to great lengths by the occasional joy and endless imperative of feeding her children. But she also struggles to maintain her own sense of self. From the beginning she wears red high-top sneakers. We also know that she plays the cello, and you see the beautiful instrument abandoned in the corner as the children demand more of her. And I know that struggle – the striving to keep a small part of yourself, and your creativity, alive in the midst of new demands placed on your time.
This morning, on the day after his second birthday, when Eli brought me The Seven Silly Eaters and settled in on the couch with his milk cup for ‘morning stories,’ I noticed that he stayed right with me through the reading. He pointed to Mr. Peters’ tools, to the dog licking up the spilled milk, to the cat and baby kittens on each page, to the cello in use and lying unused. I will not precisely give away the story’s ending, but suffice to say Eli always yells “cake!” at the end, and we sing happy birthday, dear Mrs. Peters, happy birthday to you – with silent thanks to Marla Frazee for transforming a text just a little too hard for my two-year-old into a story about a family that he can connect with in his own simple ways and grow with year upon year.