turn the page slowly

by bam

come in close. crack open the cover. take in the book. finger the paper, the color, the type. hear the page crackle. as you lift it, you turn it. you turn the page slowly.

drink in the story. take note how the words are unfurled on the page. feel the thump of the poem as it beats with your heart.

at its best it is poetry, tucked in those pages. tucked between covers. awaiting your fingers. awaiting your heart.

some of the books that i love best, have always loved best, are books for children, children’s books. books meant to be read curled up in a lap. curled up in a corner. curled up in a chair with a lap like a mama.

i have loved children’s books, collected children’s books, since long before i had children. and will keep doing so, i am certain, long after those children no longer fit in my lap.

i don’t even have to close my eyes to see the thumbelina page in tasha tudor’s book of fairy tales, the one i have loved since i was so very little, curled in a corner, the page in my lap. on the page that i love, the little spit of a girl floats on a red tulip petal, two wisps of perhaps a cat’s whisker for her oars. she has been floating on that page, trying to get to the edge of the bowl that is wrapped in a bank of bleeding heart, and lily-of-the-valley and sweet yellow pansies for 46 years, since 1961, when tasha published the book, and probably near the time that my mama gave it to me.

it might have been thumbelina who made me love books. or maybe my mama.

because today is a day at school in which all children are reading, or being read to, in hopes that illiteracy can be wiped out in schools not far away, i pulled two of my favorites off of the shelf.

they would be, for now, the beginning and end of my favorites, for one, “what you know first,” by patricia maclachlan, engravings by barry moser, has been my favorite since i stumbled upon it years and years ago in the stacks of a dusty old book store, a used-book store with the marvelous name aspidistra, squeezed in next to a hamburger joint at the not-so-quaint corner of clark and wrightwood in chicago.

the other book, “ox-cart man,” by donald hall, illustrations by barbara cooney, i call the caboose of my favorites only because it’s the last one in the door. it should have been a favorite for a long, long time. but i only just came upon it, waiting for me on a table at just about the coziest, most thoughtfully considered place to find children’s books in all chicago these days–the sweden shop, on foster near kimball, where my dear friend sandra has resettled after closing her own much-loved and missed shop, sweetpea, where some of the best books on my shelves were ever-so-reverently slipped in my most hungry hands.

“what you know first,” is pure heart-breaking poetry. a child is leaving the prairie; the family farm, sold, or, probably, lost. you hear the child’s voice, ache for the child, as he or she, i can never tell which, leaves behind an ocean of grass, endless sky, a cottonwood tree, even uncle bly who sings cowboy songs, eats pie for breakfast. i’ve always heard echoes of “the grapes of wrath” in these few pages, a grownup novel of loss and leaving behind boiled down to its rich, pure essence, in words a young heart can’t help but feel. the black-and-white engravings, i could study forever. could frame and hang on my wall.

“ox-cart man,” a poem that originally appeared in the new yorker, of all places, on oct. 3, 1977, quietly unspools a powerful tale of a man, his wife, his son and his daughter who work all year to gather, to grow and to make goods that he then sells at the market, drawn there by the ox and the cart. it is a book that pounds home the lesson of true economy, you use what you have, you sell what you’ve got, you buy what you need, you start over again. in a disposable world, these pages can’t be fingered often enough.

the u.s. poet laureate billy collins wrote of hall: “[he] has long been placed in the frostian tradition of the plainspoken rural poet.” barbara cooney, one of my truest heroes (she wrote and illustrated “miss rumphius,” which teaches us, “you must do something to make the world more beautiful”), won the caldecott medal for her ox-cart illustrations that remind us of early american paintings, new england quaint.

the power of both books is that they are quiet, so quiet. plainspoken poetry. they are books you can’t close when you get to the last page. you just sit there, holding. holding your breath. holding your heart.

holding on to the power of a poem, poured out on the page, a page best turned oh so slowly.

please forgive me if i rambled. bless you if you got to this bottom. please take a turn. tell us your best children’s book. go ahead, gush.