The search is over. I have found it: the world’s most charming book.
On the bookshelf this month is right down here. You’ll need to come and sit with me on the floor. Let’s have a look around shall we? From down here, adults are all knees and clumpy feet and you can see right up their noses. Tables are to make a den under. Windows are to get someone to lift you up to see. It’s a different world, seen through a child’s eye, heard with a child’s ears, tasted with an untutored tongue. A world that’s brighter, clearer, undulled by habit or expectation. Wonder-full.
Ah, here it is. A little book full of little tiny drawings. It’s by Ruth Krauss, who’s a grown-up – at least it’s her name on the cover, but all the words inside are by children. Five-year-olds mostly, I think, or thereabouts. It’s called I’ll Be You and You Be Me which is a good title, isn’t it, for a book about friends?
When she sent the manuscript to her publishers, they scratched their heads. One of the illustrators they sent it to returned it saying that it was impossible to illustrate ‘so fragmentary and elusive a text.’ Luckily, they found a young man whose day job was doing window displays in a New York department store. His name was Maurice Sendak, and he found in these fragments something magical and inspiring. He and Ruth became fast friends and collaborated together on many of her books, and Sendak himself went on to create classics like Where the Wild Things Are. After A Hole is to Dig they worked together on I’ll be You and You Be Me which was published in 1954 and has remained in print ever since.
Why did this book, and Krauss’s others, become such ‘timeless classics’? They are insanely simple. One of my favourite pages shows a picture sequence of a little girl and a little boy standing in front a mirror. In the first frame, the girl muses, ‘I think I’ll grow up to be a bunny before I grow up to be a lady.’ Her reflections cavorts along with her, flapping its long ears and twitching its cottontail, much to their mutual delight. In the last frame, the boy counters with: ‘I think I’ll grow up to be a steam-shovel.’ And that’s that.
This fragmentary and elusive text reads like art – it makes you see things with fresh eyes, it contains what art critic Robert Hughes famously termed ‘the shock of the new’. And sometimes it hits you with the quiet force of bordering on spiritual revelation: you might call it ‘innocence’ but that’s a poor approximation really. There’s something about the pre-linguistic state which is so much closer to – I don’t know, Samadhi, enlightenment, something truly Other Worldly. These are words from the ‘mouths of babes and sucklings’, little beings on the threshold of language, of signs and civilization, and they still glow with a touch of the wild, the pre-linguistic. Buddhist monk, Thich Nath Hanh writes that ‘we are fooled by signs or notions. When we see the signless nature of signs we see the Buddha.” I wonder what Ferdinand de Saussure or those other semioticians would have made of a text like Krauss’s, where there is the tiniest gap between signifier and signified, where ‘différance’ barely exists, where things are what they do. This is not seeing through a glass darkly, but experiencing the world face to face – as a child does. So rather than putting away childish things, I recommend that you pick up this book, and read it. Take off those adult glasses and see with a child’s eye – the child you once were. Seriously, it’ll take about four minutes – or an entire lifetime.
‘love is the same as like
Only you spell them different –
Only more of the same sort of –
Love has more stuff in it!’
The Hindu Business Line, 20 July 2014