I am an absolute sucker when it comes to books. I’ve been known to buy books simply because I like the title or the cover. I know that chumps like me are the reason why publishers do that, but I really just don’t care. How can you pass up a book called The Forest of Hands and Teeth or What I Saw and How I Lied? I dare you to look up Through To You and not spend ten minutes drooling over the cover. How can you look at books with gorgeous covers and not stare at them until you decide to buy them so that people in Barnes and Noble won’t know what a weirdo you are? Sometimes it’ll take me a year to get around to the book, but I don’t care. Just knowing they are in my possession makes me feel better.
So there I was in December, at my school’s Barnes and Noble night. I was trying to keep the weird book-staring down to a minimal since there are a lot of my children and their parents there. But there on the display next to every Christmas book imaginable, was one that caught my eye. Once Upon a Memory, written by Nina Laden and illustrated by Renata Liwska, caught me first with the title. You simply just can’t walk away from a book like that. It automatically begs the question of “What in the world do you mean? Are you going to pull at my heartstrings and make my cry in front of all of my kids? Let’s find out!”
This picture book is so deceiving in that it masquerades as an innocent little picture book with a cute boy and adorably fuzzy animals donning its cover. As soon as you open Once Upon A Memory and read the first words, you know something is different than what you expected. The format of the text relies upon a question stem on one page, with the remainder of the question on the other page. The first question that spans across the two pages is “Does a feather remember it once was… a bird?” Talk about deep, right? The text continues in this question stem on one page, with the end on the opposite page, throughout the book. There is no real story line. Instead, it is a text that is meant to make you wonder and feel inspired.
This book reminds me somewhat of The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown in that I think the children will enjoy predicting the rest of the question. I can just see them guessing what the end of “does an ocean remember it once was…” will be, and then their faces when they hear the end is “rain?” Halfway through the book, I know kids will be making their own guesses, and they should. I think reading this aloud would be a great way for kids to be active participants with the text.
I am still not convinced, however, that this book is actually meant for children. This “story” has barely over 100 words in it, is full of adorable illustrations of animals, and even uses the pronoun “you” referring to a child, yet it is something so complex that a part of me feels like it isn’t intended for children at all. Towards the end of the book, the questions get nostalgic. For example, two consecutive questions are “Does love remember it once was… new? Does a family remember it once was… two?” I think it is about at that point when you realize that maybe this book was meant for adults as much as it was for children. Children just don’t get the nostalgia associated with new love versus the kind that’s been around for a while, or that a family once had a time when it was different. The real kicker, though, that convinces me this book is nowhere as simple as it seems is the last line that reads “Will you remember you once were… a child?” After reading this as an adult, I was flooded with memories and a longing for the past. Children just aren’t there yet.
I barely even mentioned the illustrations of this book, mainly because I am so interested in the words themselves. It’s a shame, though, because Renata Liwska’s illustrations are incredible. As I reread the book, I couldn’t help but look at the illustrations and think to myself that they just seemed quiet and soft. It was in that second of thinking they were quiet that I realized “No! It couldn’t be! Is she the???” and I flipped to the back flap of the dust jacket and realized that she is the illustrator of The Quiet Book. If you are familiar with The Quiet Book or The Loud Book, then you get an idea of the soft, muted, fuzy-feeling inducing illustrations that Renata Liwska creates. I honestly can’t think of a better illustrator to accompany this simple text that hides so much more for the reader.
Overall, I love this book and I think kids will, too. I just believe the reason kids will enjoy it is not the same reason that adults will enjoy the story. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I kind of like it, actually. What better joy is there than to rediscover a book you though you knew when you were young, just to find out when you are older that there was more there than you even remembered? Once Upon A Memory is the kind of book that will stay with me and it can rest easy knowing that it will be anything but a memory for a very, very long time.