Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Friday, December 27, 2013

What We Keep

What is it about the words once upon?  It's as if when they are silently read or spoken aloud an ageless storytelling incantation is evoked, swirling about the reader or listener.  As the tale continues we are drawn deeper into the realm it creates.

When a book includes those two words in the title or as part of the opening sentence, it's nearly impossible, as an individual reading silently, not to imagine sharing with others.  You find yourself placing emphasis on certain words, altering your voice to convey emotion and falling completely under the spell of the narrative. Written by Nina Laden with illustrations by Renata Liwska, Once Upon a Memory (Little, Brown and Company, December 3, 2013) is one of those books whose charm does not fade when the covers are closed.

Does a feather remember 
it once was...

...a bird?

In a series of seven rhyming couplets, fourteen questions are asked of readers.  For each one we take a journey back to the beginning; to the origins of an object, a man-made area, a natural element, an action or an endearment.  We explore and learn to look closer at those things which might be a part of our everyday lives.

A young boy is sitting, stuffed animal friends and his dog sharing a day with him, when a breeze blows a feather into his room.  This feather provides the impetus for all the other places we see this little guy visit.  Or sometimes we watch as he does something which triggers another thought.

Looking at a book, sitting in a chair, digging in the dirt, or walking his dog leads him to words, trees, peas and grain.  He visits a seashore, a home for statues, a special piece of land or his own yard to ponder rain, stone, the unknown or play.  The boy sleeps, chats with an older woman, watches a line of baby ducks, and rides an airplane to contemplate, allowing his mind to wander.  He may even grow up wondering if he will remember.

By the end of the first couplet, the invitation sent to me as a reader by the carefully written words of Nina Laden was gladly accepted.  As each question is read, readers can't help but anticipate where the next page will lead them. What word will be chosen to rhyme with the previous word?  We follow the narrative not only for this purpose but to encounter those things we can sense, the tangible and actual, and those things we can feel, the intangible and rare.  It is in the silence these words create, we are able to enlarge our perceptions.

When opening the matching jacket and cover, it's hard not to sigh with pleasure.  Renata Liwska pictures the boy sitting with his animal friends who have come alive.  On the front they are enjoying a peaceful read in a tree, the feather dangling down from a string held by the squirrel.  On the back the tree branches are extended but day has shifted to night, stars sparkling in the air from a pen poised over an open book held by a tiny bear.  The opening and closing endpapers are done in pure white with a single feather tucked in the corner of each set.

The introductory two pages are wordless, featuring the boy surrounded by all his toys and his dog.  A small table is set for tea and an owl-shaped clock ticks on the wall as the curtains blow out into the room.  For each question, using white space to accent and frame, Renata Liwska pictures the boy on the left for the first part of the phrase with animals depicting the second part on the right.

The verso explains her work:

The art was initially sketched by hand in the artist's journal.  It was then scanned and colored in Adobe Photoshop.  The animal characters were inspired by the artist's experiences with nature, from her worldwide travels to her own backyard. 

As an example, for the sentence

Does a cake remember
it once was... 

we see a smaller illustration on the left of the boy's dog up on its hind legs, paws resting on the window, looking into a bakery with the boy inside holding loaves of bread.  On the right we see six mice walking and climbing through fields of grain; an adult, holding the hand of a child, is listening and another is pulling a little red wagon.

Liwska's illustrations are luminous in their delicateness. Details are intricate; defining features on her animals are full of life.  There is humor with all the added extras; the bird sweeping up feathers in the "barber shop" is listening to a tape player with a headset, in the bookshop another animal is writing on a little red typewriter, the dog is digging in the garden, as water is filling their boat two bears are scooping it out while another plays with rubber ducks and paper boats, and a mallard is wearing a tool belt as he constructs a nest.

One of my favorite illustrations (I truly love them all) is of the boy sleeping with his dog curled up on the bed, a speckled ball in his paws.  On the opposite side is a day-at-the-beach scene filled with all kinds of animals at play, two are seated in the foreground on a bench, flip-flops scattered about on the deck.  Kites are flying.  Characters are surfing.  Crabs are dancing.  And the ball is being kicked in the sand.  Happiness is everywhere you look.

If you want a book to soothe, to gently encourage imaginations to flourish, Once Upon a Memory written by Nina Laden with illustrations by Renata Liwska is a title you need.  I know it will become a favorite with readers and listeners alike.  It opens the door to infinite possibilities.  In my heart and mind I am adding this title to those books I call huggable.

On the left-hand side of the closing endpapers is a list by the author and illustrator of their favorite things to remember.  They ask you what your favorite things are.  Please follow the links embedded in their names to access their personal websites and Renata Liwska's blog.  Here is a link to a post at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast highlighting the work of Renata Liwska.


  1. Thank you for this lovely, lilting review of our book. You have made my heart very happy.

    1. And you have made my heart very happy by visiting my blog, Nina. Thank you for this very, very special book.