When does a house become a home? Perhaps, the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard writes in “The Poetics of Space,” when its occupants unpack their memories along with their things, and “an entire past comes to dwell” in it. The mother and young son whom we meet in Sydney Smith’s DO YOU REMEMBER? (Neal Porter/Holiday House, 40 pp., $18.99, ages 4 to 8) are busy doing just that as they snuggle in bed in their new apartment and trade memories of the life they left behind. A divorce, it appears, accounts for their altered circumstances. The memory game we overhear them playing is no mere pastime but a lifeline.
One of Canada’s most acclaimed picture book artists, Smith is a master of mood. The watercolor and gouache illustrations in “Do You Remember?” are tone poems that alternate between close-up and wide-angle views of mother and son, and smaller, fragmentary images arranged to suggest snapshots in a family album, if not the scrappy nature of memory itself. Without pretending the pair’s adjustment will be easy, Smith shows that, at any age, shared memories like theirs can help tilt the balance from present-day fearfulness to hope for the future. So can this book.
Allen Say, the 1994 Caldecott medalist for “Grandfather’s Journey,” once defined imagination as “rearrangement of memory,” and has often looked to the past for stories to tell. In KOZO THE SPARROW (Clarion, 40 pp., $19.99, ages 4 to 8), he relates an episode from his childhood in postwar Japan: the day he stood up to a trio of bullies outside his schoolyard and saved the life of a baby sparrow. The artist’s fans will recognize the story’s setting from “The Bicycle Man” (1982), another memory piece, in which an occupation-era G.I., chancing upon the same schoolyard, pauses to improvise eye-popping cycling tricks for the children of his former enemy.
The more intimate new story might easily have taken a maudlin turn — wimpy kid nurses fledgling sparrow back to health. But Say’s habitual wry fatalism and raw honesty ground the narrative in more elemental territory: the question of how anyone — boy or bird — manages in the early going to survive the serial cruelty and indifference of others. Happily, Say has lived not only to tell the tale, but also to illustrate it with a nuanced blend of watercolor and line art that recalls the robust picture narratives of the Japanese ukiyo-e master Hokusai. In an author’s note at the end, he adds a telling example of the tricks memory can play. At a school reunion he attended decades after moving to the United States, Say found that while his old classmates clearly remembered his pet sparrow, they had no recollection of the gregarious G.I., or of much else about the war that had so marked their childhoods.
For MISS IRWIN (Scholastic, 32 pp., $19.99, ages 4 to 8), a picture book in a more wistful key, Say has opted for a different visual emphasis. In this story prompted by fond memories of his daughter’s kindergarten teacher, a boy visiting his grandmother finds himself being mistaken for another child, a favorite kindergartner his grandmother had as a student years earlier. Andy’s parents have warned him that something like this might happen, and the resilient second grader easily slips into the role his grandmother has cast him in, recounting pretend memories that mesh with her real ones of the other boy.
Say’s radiant pastel paint colors celebrate the in-the-moment aliveness of the pair’s strangely poignant verbal dance, while the underlying drawings’ faint or discarded outlines seem to mirror the changing parameters of an older person’s fading perception. Would another 7-year-old do as well as Andy? At a time when rising numbers of children know aging loved ones faced with memory loss, Say’s story can also serve as an early warning system and rough guide.
For slightly younger children in a similar situation, Linda Shute’s REMIND ME (Neal Porter/Holiday House, 32 pp., $18.99, ages 3 to 7) features cozy, fanciful art and a conversation between two elephants, creatures known in fact and fable for their impressive memories. At first, the tender exchanges between the elder elephant and her spry grandson resemble those in comforting, child-centric classics like Else Holmelund Minarik and Maurice Sendak’s “Little Bear” (1957). Soon, however, they take a different, once-unimaginable turn, as the grandmother’s memory falters and the child steps in to help.
Vulnerable adults no longer appear in picture books only for comic effect. Shifting demographics and young people’s technological edge are among the factors prompting new types of stories with knowing child characters and more balanced adult-child relationships. W.H. Auden once remarked, “There are no good books that are only for children”; that observation has never rung more true than it does now.