I’ve long been fascinated by starlings. The way the birds launch themselves into the sky at dusk for a mesmerizing performance of morphing and murmuration. The way the flock pivots and spirals in unison, expanding and shrinking like the bellows of a well-played accordion.
I was pursuing the children’s section of a local bookstore in Traverse City when I saw it: a fiery pink and orange sunset on the cover of a picture book overlayed with a smattering of black starlings. Two tiny humans and their dog stood on solid ground as silhouettes against the backdrop of a colorful sky as starlings swarmed in the clouds above them. The cover illustrations were so stunning, they evoked reverence.
I went home from the bookstore that day with the book We are Starlings by Robert Furrow, Donna Jo Napoli, and Marc Martin. And while I have a three-year-old who is increasingly interested in picture books, this one was for me.
Katherine Rundell discusses the importance of children’s literature in her essay Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise. “I've been writing children's fiction for more than 10 years now,” she says, “and still I would hesitate to define it. But I do know, with more certainty than I usually feel about anything, what it is not: it's not exclusively for children.”
“There is, though, a sense among most adults that we should only read in one direction, because to do otherwise would be to regress or retreat: to de-mature. You pass Spot the Dog, battle past that two-headed monster Peter and Jane; through Narnia, on to The Catcher in the Rye or Patrick Ness, and from there to adult fiction, where you remain, triumphant, never glancing back, because to glance back would be to lose ground. But the human heart is not a linear train ride.I still read Paddington when I need to believe, as Michael Bond does, that the world's miracles are more powerful than its chaos.”
There’s a gatefold with a sprawling illustration of starlings toward the end of the children’s picture book We Are Starlings. My three-year-old, Loren, likes to trace the patterns of starlings with his pointer finger while I read the words, “We twist through the sky like giant snakes. Or fan out like humongous wings. We loop back over ourselves in figure eights. We dance. And dance. And dance.” For a few minutes while we read this story together, my son and I escape into a world of starlings and are suspended in the magic of the story. Loren sits quietly in my lap, and we are engrossed in a mutual awe.
Katherine Rundell describes this phenomenon in her essay. “In a world which prizes a pose of exhausted knowingness, children's fiction allows itself the unsophisticated stance of awe. Children's fiction does something else too: it offers to help us refind things we may not even know we have lost. When you read children's books, you are given the space to read again as a child: to find your way back, back to the time when new discoveries came daily and when the world was colossal, before your imagination was trimmed and neatened, as if it were an optional extra. But imagination is not and never has been optional: it is at the heart of everything, the thing that allows us to experience the world from the perspectives of others: the condition precedent of love itself.”
I’m deep into the world of picture books with my children right now, but I look forward to every iteration of children’s literature that my family and I will experience in the upcoming years. And when I’m old and wise, I hope I’m still circling back to the Children’s Wing for a visit now and then. I hope you are too. As Rundell so eloquently said, Children’s literature is the place we can embrace the “unsophisticated stance of awe” and rediscover imagination “at the heart of everything.”
Children’s books have a way of communicating important truths in simple ways. The stories are, by nature, short, and therefore must be boiled down to their truest essence. Children’s stories teach us—all of us—how to be brave again, how to believe, how to listen and feel. Children’s literature teaches us how to heal and love and transcend. Children’s literature teaches us how to rediscover our truest selves—to return to the carefree spirit of childhood where anything was (and still is) possible, if only for a moment.