Thursday, September 25, 2008

Play With Me by Marie Hall Ets

Play With Me by Marie Hall Ets (Viking Press, 1955).

As an adult, I have an entirely different relationship to books than I did as a child, and it's a real shame. Maybe it's related to the loss of the ability to play make-believe that I experienced some time just before puberty hit - although I do think "Narnia!" whenever I walk down a mysterious misty tree-lined path (or even when a sidewalk in my urban neighborhood is canopied by an overgrown stand of bamboo). Maybe I've just don't know how to lose my self in a book the same way - although I dive into books with complete and blessed immersion as my main goal.

I don't think that adults identify so viscerally with books as children do. I love and need books as much as I ever did, and there are adult books that I truly love. A terrific book sweeps me along so fast and hard that I lose track of time and have to tear myself away in order to get a bit of sleep. But still, the book and its characters are separate from me. Some of its flavor might linger and a tiny bit of a good book must surely become a part of me forever, but I never lose track of the borders between the story and my own life.

However, kids inhabit the books they love. They are not just fully absorbed spectators, but actual participants in the story. The book has all the meaning that a real life event might, with the added benefit of being able to be experienced over and over, to be pored over and pondered.

Reading my frayed copy of Play With Me, I can remember the intensity with which I identified with its nameless narrator. The jacket vanished so long ago that I can't remember what it looked like; pencil scribbles and odd stains mar the beige back and cover but the cream-colored outlines of the little girl chasing a rabbit, blowing the seeds from a milkweed flower, and so on are still very visible.

That little girl was me. She was a wispy blonde to my tangled brunette, she wore an odd tie-up-the-back pinafore that looks to my adult eyes like a hospital gown, a truly silly bow nodded at the very top of her head. But she was all alone, a state of being that still resonates with me strongly to this day.

She is alone in a meadow with a few trees and a creek, not too far away from the house that is just visible in the distance, but far enough that you just know that all she can hear is the babble of water in the creek and the wind rattling the leaves in the trees, and probably lots of insects as well. And she is lonely and wants to play, but every animal she tries to catch or touch runs away.

The illustrations are simple charcoal pencil drawings against a cream-beige background, with the little girl's pink-beige skin the only bit of color. The plants and flowers are drawn with a careful, childlike enthusiasm - leaves are round and blobby, grass is spiky and sparse - and the animals (a rabbit, a grasshopper, a scolding blue jay, a turtle, a snake, a fawn, a frog) have only just enough anthropomorphism to make their eventual "friendship" with the girl seem not only plausible but perfectly wonderful.

For the girl eventually gives up on chasing animals and just sits quietly on a rock watching a bug in the creek, and as she continues to be still, all the animals come back one by one, closer and closer, until finally - huge moment for me, no matter how many hundreds of times I read it - the fawn comes up and licks her cheek.

I'm very good at staying very still and quiet, a skill that has stood me in good stead through many long and boring meetings, presentations, and social events. Could it be a result of this book? One thing I've learned, though - in order to make friends in the real world, a different and more challenging sort of skill is required. As an introvert, I find it easier to make friends with tiny hamsters, surly chickens, and indifferent squirrels than with people.
What did I gaze at more than anything else? The snake puddling his way back into his hole, the fawn hiding behind a stand of blobby-leaved plants, the little girl blowing the milkweed, the fawn licking the quietly delirious girl - and the serene sun, drawn just the way a little kid would, with rays and a face, smiling down on every page.
It is this kind of connection to books, and not just any books but to children's books, that led me to children's librarianship. I had to be around these books. I still do. They nourish me every single day. Thank goodness that my job (and motherhood) has allowed me to pass this joyful, eternal connection on to lots and lots of kids.
Whew. Time to get back to my book!

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