have spent a lot of time over the past few years reading picture books. As a mother of a three-year-old and working in children’s publishing, sometimes it feels like reading picture books is the most important thing I do. Books about faces, colours, numbers, dreams, dogs, journeys and jobs. Books about how we live, how others live, how people lived in the past.
While a baby’s brain is exploding with the early possibilities of colour and sound in that beautiful pre-language psychedelic bubble when everything is wild and new, we hold them, sing nursery rhymes, teach them the sounds of farm animals and how to recognise the shapes of keys and candles. These little books convey a social and a moral world that in many ways feels strangely antiquated. They describe a world that we can understand but it’s not the world we are leaving to our children.
I often need to remind myself that when we read to a child we are also reading to ourselves. In that heady and difficult first year after my daughter’s birth, I took solace in (unrequested) repeat reads of Leo Lionni’s Pezzettino – the story of a little ceramic tile who isn’t sure of his place in the world. Pezzettino must break apart into a million pieces in order to put himself back together again and to realise that he had always held all the answers inside. I still find it difficult to read Pezzettino without tears – it clarified my experience of early motherhood better than anything else I read at that time.
In my day job as a children’s publisher, I think about these issues when we’re acquiring books. We’re looking for books that celebrate the universe of childhood and can illuminate those experiences and emotions that are not easy to explain. But reading picture books during the reign of Donald Trump seems to require a long-term project in parental magical thinking. It’s difficult to sidestep the murky soup of childcare logistics, grocery shopping and the 3am Pavlovian Twitter scan to catch the latest horrors coming out of the US.
In this mildly addled state, Carson Ellis’s Du Iz Tak? has become a go to message of collectivism and resilience for me. Recently awarded a well-deserved Caldecott Honour, this book uses a made-up bug language to tell of a year in the life of a group of insects. These insects work inventively together to build a home – disaster strikes, and the home is threatened, but resilience in the face of disaster means that life and joy can be salvaged. They revel in the wonder and the glory of their world, and then time passes, seasons change and all starts over again. What a glorious and ultimately hopeful metaphor – and so necessary for our children and ourselves at this time.
What kind of world can we possibly hope for our children? When we are faced with the bleak realities of politics and the state of the environment, it can feel utterly overwhelming and almost impossible to imagine a better world; and this is said knowing that my child, and most Australian children, by many measures, are better placed than most to face the global challenges to come.
In the increasingly polarised and reactionary society in which we find ourselves, small acts of resistance – including the publication of picture books – become more important. Next month, Scribble will release Davina Bell and Allison Colpoys’s Under the Love Umbrella. Bell’s text speaks, through gentle rhyme, of the enduring love that a parent or loved one feels for a child, whether they are together or far apart. Colpoys’s illustrations tell a more specific story about four children and their families from different backgrounds and family structures. The general and specific work together to create something that feels to me, in this political environment, quietly radical: all people feel love and deserve empathy.
Perhaps by reading our children books that foreground perseverance and empathy, we can help our children become compassionate and resilient – traits that seem sorely lacking in so many of our national and international leaders. We can show them the intrinsic good to be found in others and reaffirm the age-old concept of the common good. In truth, these are messages that I as much as anyone need reminding of.