People who have hung out with me for any period of time have probably heard me talk about picture books I want to hug.
These are books I love so much, I just have to hug them and re-read them, and then go off and attempt to write something even half as good. (Heck, I think at least three of my published books have come about this very way — me trying to be half as good as another writer I admire. I never truly succeed, but there’s joy in the journey.)
I think all readers and writers should have books they want to hug. It makes reading, writing, and life much more fun.
But, yesterday, I encountered a brand-new picture book that I don’t just want to hug. Oh, no.
I want to stare longingly at it, and then bow down in its direction like Garth and Wayne do in that old Saturday Night Live skit and say, “I’M NOT WORTHY.”
Discovering this book was an interesting configuration of events. I had pre-ordered four lyrical picture books I’d heard good things about and they all arrived within a few days of each other. I then sat down to read them all, one after another.
And, the first three were good. Very good even. I love lyrical picture books, and these in no way disappointed. But, then … THEN … I read the last one. And, that was it. I fell in insta-love. (You know, that romance novel trope where two characters set eyes on each other once and simply know they’re meant to be without having exchanged a word.)
The book that’s my new best friend is IN EVERY LIFE, written and illustrated by Marla Frazee and published by Beach Lane Books.
Now, I’m a big fan of Marla’s overall. I own STARS, EVERYWHERE BABIES, ALL THE WORLD, GOD GOT A DOG and a few other titles I can’t think of right now. So, I was certainly predisposed to like this new offering.
But, still …
IN EVERY LIFE is gorgeously structured. It contains seven sentences. That’s all.
Each sentence follows this pattern:
In every XXXXX, blessed is the XXXXX.
Underneath each sentence, which is hand-lettered and colored by Marla, is a collection of eight to 14 supporting images illustrating scenes from everyday life. Images of birth, smiles, hope, sadness, mystery, love and so much more.
The emotions of the people shown just leap off the page. They are so true to life that every reader can find themselves and their heart somewhere. There’s a teenager curled up on a beanbag chair that exudes sadness, and an elderly couple in the hospital with their foreheads touching over a walker. There are families, couples, children, adults, friends, lovers, joy, tears, nostalgia and promise. Big and small life milestones and unremarkable everyday occurrences.
After each sentence and its supporting art, is a wordless, two-page spread. These spreads remind me very much of Marla’s work in ALL THE WORLD. Sweeping landscapes take up most of these spreads with people occupying small parts of the pages. These images show how vast and beautiful the world is. There are sunbeams. Clouds. Oceans. Beaches. Mountains. Forests. Rain.
And love. So very much love. Which is something everyone in every life deserves.
For lyrical picture books to truly work, I think they need four things:
- A sweeping, all-encompassing theme. This one has it: Life itself.
- Beautiful language. Yes, there are only seven sentences, but they’re lovely.
- A solid structure, because there’s not a traditional plot. The format of the sentence and supporting images followed by the wordless spread easily guides readers through the book.
- Heart to spare. The book needs to make the reader feel something that will linger long after the last page is turned. And, this one does. What exactly is felt, I think, will depend on the reader and their life experiences.
Because Marla is such a talented illustrator, a lot of the book’s structure and heart come from her wonderful art. And that’s something, I, as a writer who does not draw, obviously can’t replicate.
So, when I go off to try and write something that’s half as good, I’ll focus on what I can do.
I can strive to write words that inspire illustrators to create something beautiful.
I can aspire to write something full of heart and connections.
I can try to write something that makes people see their own — and others’ — humanity.
And maybe, someday, that will result in a book someone else wants to hug.