Sometimes, life is hard.
And, when it is, remembering that there are lovely things alongside the hard ones can be helpful.
Not that that’s easy to do when you’re sick, sad, scared or angry.
That’s one reason why TEN BEAUTIFUL THINGS by Molly Beth Griffin and Maribel Lechuga (Charlesbridge, 2021) might be exactly the picture book you need right now.
Here’s the plot. Lily is on a long car ride with her grandmother to Gram’s house in Iowa. Lily is going to stay there. For good. The reason why isn’t explained. Divorce? Death? Neglect? We don’t know. And, we don’t need to! All that matters is that Lily is sad. So, Gram suggests that they pass the time by finding ten beautiful things.
Lily isn’t optimistic. Nothing could be beautiful. But, as the drive progresses, Lily and Gram find beauty in expected and unexpected places – a sunrise, a baby calf, a thunderstorm and some mud. And the tenth beautiful thing, which I will not share, wraps the book up beautifully. It doesn’t fix Lily’s situation, but it provides a ray of hope and the start of acceptance.
Three things make this book a must-read for me:
- The heart.
There’s so much heart in this book. But it’s also so subdued, which is a great feat to accomplish as a picture book creator. From the first page, it’s obvious Lily has suffered a loss:
Lily ran her finger across the Iowa map.
An X marked Gram’s house
on an empty patch of land.
Lily’s new home.
As I said before, we don’t know what that loss is. But the simple words and the look on Lily’s face and the fact that’s she surrounded by all her stuff from her previous life tell us enough. Molly Beth Griffin also does a great job describing Lily’s feelings in unexpected ways, like: “Lily felt the complaints starting in her belly again, coming up her throat and nearly out her mouth.” And: “Lily popped a handful of crackers into her mouth, but food didn’t fill up her hollow places.”
That theme of filling up the empty places inside continues throughout the book to great effect.
2. The language.
Molly Beth Griffin is a poet as well as a picture book writer, and it shows. The language in this book is simply beautiful and beautifully simple. Here’s how she describes a thunderstorm (that’s also masterfully drawn by Maribel Lechuga):
The clouds began to draw close.
The sky grew dark. The earth rumbled.
Suddenly the air exploded in bright flashes.
Cloud banks traded lightning back and forth,
And then … then … there’s this line that’s a showstopper. Gram suggests a falling-apart barn as a beautiful thing. Lily says it can’t count because it’s not pretty. Gram responds:
“We’re not looking for pretty.
We want beautiful.”
Well, wow. Those eight words say a lot. In some ways, they’re the theme of the book. Life can be beautiful even when it isn’t pretty.
3. The hook.
This is a book any kid, any family, any teacher or any librarian can work with. Although it features a child moving to a new living arrangement, the concept of finding beautiful things even when life doesn’t seem lovely works for anyone experiencing any array of troubles – from toddlers having cranky days for no apparent reason to people experiencing deep and significant loss.
Or, you know, people living through a pandemic.
And while the concept, in theory, might seem a bit naïve or unsophisticated in a “just count your blessings” kind of way, it’s anything but in the book. Finding the beautiful things doesn’t make everything better for Lily. But it gives her something else to focus on, broadens her perspective and reminds her that, no matter what is happening in her world, there still are beautiful things that she can find and rely on as she adjusts to her new normal.
And, I must mention that this book reminds me of one of my all-time favorite picture books, THE TENTH GOOD THING ABOUT BARNEY, written by the inimitable Judith Viorst and illustrated by Erik Blegvad. In that book, a family’s cat – Barney – has died, and the child’s mom suggests they think of ten good things about Barney. Same concept, totally different story.
That’s one of my favorite things about picture books. Universal emotions remain the same over time. BARNEY was first published in 1971 – 50 years before TEN BEAUTIFUL THINGS. But, the number of ways to tell stories centered on those emotions remains infinite.
And, to me, THAT’S a beautiful thing.