I started the first semester of graduate school knowing just a little more about picture books than I do about worms. Children love them, they come out on rainy days, and if you cut them in half, they really do die. See, I’d had a course or two in college about picture books, so I recognized cumulative structure when I came upon it. I knew how to talk about the marriage of text and illustration. I could even say a few words about Freudian interpretations of Sendak and the Brothers Grimm. But sort of like worms, picture books were a thing I’d rarely looked at closely since I was a child myself. Until I began Hamline University's MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults.
That first sememster I unpacked Rosemary Wells and Holly Hobbie, studying their gentle prose and tender stories. I then ripped into scary picture books and was a little frightened myself by the variety of structure, story, and skill that I discovered. Next I looked at rhyme and picked apart a few of my favorite books, and wrote a post about writing rhyming picture books. But what then? I’d evaluated poetry and prose, I’d examined countless themes, various styles. I was missing something, something large, elusive.
Then I discovered a third type of picture book. Not rhyming verse, not prose, rather a way of writing that is emotion in poetic form. “Was it Wordsworth,” Charlotte Zolotow writes, “who said poetry is an overflow of emotion?” In select books, the story is little more than a feeling, but the feeling so strong, so beautifully aroused, so vivid, it becomes a living thing.
If narrative communicates a story, and verse delights and entertains, then this lyrical not-quite-prose evokes. It lingers in metaphor, plays with word and syllable, and is “unconscious memory coupled with the present pain [that is] formed into a book young children [understand]” (“Feeling...” 27). Young children and adults, I would add.
I’m not one for showy language. Despite being a poet and lover of poetry, I have always disliked poetry (detested, reviled) of the sort: “The night/of my illustrious/cheesecake soul/wanders like the Orwellian gazelle/seeking the rain of Hermes’ succulent heart.” Since I’d read so much of this type of poetry, and understood not a word of it, and even written a few such poems of my own (also reviled and not understood), I once assumed all poetry was of this esoteric sort. Nonsensical garbage that’s like 67% of all statistics, made up on the spot. Sometimes I’m happy to be wrong.
Charlotte Zolotow’s Flocks of Birds doesn’t seem like poetry. It’s not verse in a cheery sing-song rhyme, nor is it a prosy story with action rising to a crescendo before drifting off and away and into the words the end. It’s something altogether different. Lyric. Emotion. It’s a moment of tenderness between mother and daughter—of comfort, safety, the promise: just as surely as the birds fly overhead, I’ll keep watch over you, dear child. The gravitas is great, but the package is simple, and in its simplicity, lovely. “Close your eyes and think of flocks of birds/flying south.” Zolotow writes a lullaby of words.
“What shall I think about them?”
the little girl asked.
“Oh,” said her mother, “think of a dark meadow
in the mountains far away.
The long black grass is filled with
Notice the gentle ‘o’ sounds: “flocks,” “south,” “Oh,” “mother,” “meadow,” “mountains,” “long.” This assonance forms a subtle internal rhyme that creates natural rhythm. The gently lolling words contrast with quicker, firmer words, “black,” “dark.” Balance is achieved, and with it beauty. It reads like a rocking chair, back and forth, with the gentle “ss” in “grass,” and “sleeping,” and “birds” acting as the breeze on the listener’s cheek. Later Zolotow writes, “... white-edged waves into/the windy water,” her alliteration rolling like the very waves of her description.
I find it interesting that Zolotow, for all her detail, all her specificity, never names her birds. They are not crows, not gulls, not geese. They are just birds. Birds flying south. This repetend moves nameless birds from simple avian into the realm of Platonic form. Perhaps this is intended; perhaps it’s “... the dreamlike, almost Jungian, merging of thoughts, fantasies, and desires that are universal” (“Déjà vu” 536), as Zolotow writes.
While most of Flocks of Birds is as concrete as deer drinking from a lake, “lights go on/like little stars,” brings in simile and night, and later the moon shines on water “like a pool of black ink.” Zolotow uses few similes I believe because her book itself is metaphor. The flocks of Jungian birds could be the child’s dreams floating on and on through the night. But the joy of such imagery is that the next reader may well find a different metaphor.
For Zolotow this book might even be a metaphor for writing. “Writing is a mysterious process,” she shares, “like dreaming. It is a synthesis of bits and pieces of one’s life. Some strong feeling takes seemingly unrelated bits and pieces of the writer’s experience and pulls them together, gives them shape and form and makes them into a book to which young readers respond.”
Which is just a little bit “like flocks of birds/flying through the night/in the fall.”
And so with Zolotow I find another type of picture book. Another flavor, if you will. Emotion, pure and lovely, captured between two covers, made universal and eternal. Like a dream.