It took me a while to decide I liked this book, but at a certain point I tipped headlong into, well, maybe not love, but one of those strangled feelings of respect and reverence. There are altogether too many children's books that fetishize libraries – and possible too many adult books as well. As much as I like to read, and I do, believe you me, I'm not altogether comfortable with this notion of books as salvation, books as moral instruction. I have learned things from books, really I have, but...well, here comes the random digression.
This evening I had one of my brilliant, beautiful friends over for her 50th birthday. I made a lovely dinner, even if the asparagus was somewhat over-cooked, and at some point we fell on the origami kit we'd bought ostensibly for the boy. My husband paged through the how-to manual, frustrated that he couldn't find a crane, so I said stop. I know this. And using some sense memory I had from when I was 12 and had read the horrifyingly sad story about the girl in Japan who'd been irradiated in the bombings that closed the end of the War. She developed leukemia, and then heard the folk tale about folding a thousand cranes to gain a wish, folded near a thousand, and then died. (What is this book?)
I folded somewhere near four hundred the year I read that book, playfully, horribly, and I'm not sure what my wish would have been, in the end. My fingers now moved over the paper in several false starts, finally ending on a crane. We folded frogs and the thing you use to tell your fortune, a little bubble thing you blow up, a way of folding an 8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper to make a clever, compact note to slip into your bffs backpack. All this with the knowledge of our fingers from twenty, thirty, forty years ago. Is this in books? It is and it isn't. I can't say what I learned from the girl's death, from the story
, of her death; it's wordless in the end, written inside my nerves.
But. Still. Jeje in this story visits his grandfather in a library in the forest, bringing along a fish in a glass, a red fish, the only color in this tale. While I was putting the boy to bed tonight I finally realized that his fish, a blue betta named Arcturus Chomp Chomp Chomp, is dying. Horrible. Last time we worried about our fish, when Arturus was sleeping fishily but not sick, the boy howled in terror and loss, and I flirted with the idea of replacing the fish surreptitiously, even though I think this is a cheap, dishonest dodge around the hard fact of death. So, Jeje comes to the library, a shadowy, wooded library that I would absolutely kill to have down the street from my house, and then quiet mysteries unfold.
Jeje sleeps, and awakes to find his fish absent, and the flash of the red fin over the stacks draws Jeje deeper into the library. He finds a red book, and opening it, falls into its pages, into a scatter of red fish, flying cranes and a wordless journey over salt, water and air. There's a page in here, where the artist/author has drawn a page that fits just inside the edges of the pages we read, and this makes me ah ah ahaahahhh. I don't have word for this. O God. The story ends with Jeje's gentle hands returning his fish to the glass, and a promise to return. The art is muted, quiet, something that Dave McKean would draw if he were less clever
. I don't mean to imply that these drawings are stupid, but they are less cluttered, more simple, but the kind of simplicity that draws a narrative in shadows and the odd detail. The girl and I argued about whether the cranes were cranes or framingos, as her speech impediment would have it, and this makes me delirious. Books. They open odd worlds. I'll return, I promise.