Friday, March 29, 2013

Picture Book Review - The Quiet Place by Sarah Stewart

Once in a while you find a book that hits on all the right notes: gorgeous to look at, spectacularly written, sensitive, thoughtful and one your kiddo wants to hear over and over. It's rare, this type of book, I'm not going to kid you. It's especially rare to find one that fits the last criterion. Sprout tends to focus on books that are really energetic and lively, which is great of course, but doesn't always make for the most impactful choice.

And so it surprised me when he became especially taken with a book by one of my favorite author-illustrator duos, Sarah Stewart and David Small. Both have received numerous accolades for their work, together and separately. David Small's graphic memoir Stitches was a selection we read in my teen lit class last semester and it is probably the one that I found most haunting and memorable. And I've adored Sarah Stewart's body of work for a long time, so a new picture book from her was definitely going on my TBR list. But when I brought it home, Sprout seized it out of my read-and-review pile and appropriated it for bedtime reading almost immediately.

The Quiet Place is a story of immigration, of change and finding oneself in a world that's far from the familiar. Told through letters from Isabel to her Auntie Lupita back home in Mexico, the story begins with the illustrations - the opening endpapers show the family preparing to leave and then driving away from their village home. The first letter just after Isabel's family has crossed the border, and it's her first letter using the English words she's learned from Aunt Lupita. As we follow Isabel's story, we learn more of the things she misses, and of the new things she's discovering in this foreign life -- snow, for instance, a bright spot in the otherwise colorless world that seems to be Isabel's now.

Isabel yearns for a place that is her own, a quiet place, and her resourceful nature helps her come up with the perfect solution to make a retreat when she needs one. And gradually, bit by bit, Isabel finds that there is value not only in quiet, but in laughter and music and dancing and noise and life, the bursting new life that seems to be flowering all around her, almost without her notice. Though she misses Aunt Lupita fiercely, by the end of the book we know that Isabel will make her own way in America, and that the lives of those she meets will be all the richer for it.

I love this book, not only because of its theme but because of the perfect symbiosis between picture and story. In the best picture books, you cannot separate the two forms of art without a loss to the tale they are telling, and that's certainly the case here. What Stewart's perfectly chosen words hint at, Small's nuanced illustrations embody, and vice versa. Isabel as a character comes alive through the missives she pens to her aunt, but what she doesn't write down is ours to peek into anyway -- her reticence to join in a birthday part, her wistfulness while watching Fourth of July fireworks. Though her heart is always partly home in Mexico, Isabel's joy slowly comes alive in her new home, which is a thrill to witness.

Though I'm sure most of the deeper themes about immigration and identity went right past my almost-four-year-old, Sprout displayed a real sensitivity toward this book. And therein lies a lesson, my friends -- don't hold back the good stuff from your little ones just because you think they aren't ready. They are often old souls, our children, and fine books like The Quiet Place may touch them deeply in a place even their parents cannot entirely understand.

The Quiet Place by Sarah Stewart, published by Farrar Straus Giroux
Ages 4-10
Source: Library
Sample: "The spots on this letter are from my tears. A big storm blew across Lake Michigan yesterday. I had left my box outside and the rain ruined it. So many new things are in my life, not just new words but new people and new places. I loved how safe I felt in that box! Mother is letting me write this letter under the kitchen table. It isn't the same."

Bonus: interview with Sarah Stewart and David Small about the inspiration for The Quiet Place

1 comment:

PragmaticMom said...

I am a huge fan of that combo of Stewart and Small. Glad to learn about this book!