Beauty books. Does anyone know what I mean by that phrase? I’m sure you do, though you may use another term. We’ve all bought them, we’ve all received them, and we’ve all put them on the shelf where they are never read and get dustier and dustier.
Beauty books: books you think you SHOULD buy. Those books you think you SHOULD read to your children.
Those books we think are gorgeous, but our children have no interest in whatsoever.
They arrive, with all the best intentions, at baby showers, under the Christmas tree, at birthdays and other special occasions. Like ladybugs in warm weather, they arrive with the promise of beauty but ultimately expire on our bookshelves, dying a slow and dusty death.
They are tricky, those beauty books.
There are some beauty books that masquerade as good stories, and then there are good stories that masquerade as beauty books. BUT … then there are the beauty books that are GREAT stories. We have several: “Hello, Lighthouse” by Sophie Blackall, “What Do You Do with a Problem?” by Kobi Yamada, and “Each Kindness” by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis. These books are incredibly special, books that somehow come together into a sort of magic; they aren’t “beauty books,” they are “beautiful books.” And I came across one just the other day.
“In a Jar” written and illustrated by Deborah Marcero.
When “In a Jar” arrived at my house, I thought there was no way any book that beautiful could be any good. The cover illustration alone was enough to make me wary: two small bunnies holding jars in a forest glen of bluebells, the warm light and cool shadows playing around them. No way, I thought. This is just too perfect to be true.
Already I was dubious, but when I open the book, the first lines were just too much. “Llewellyn was a collector. He collected things in jars.”
Oh, my gosh, the bunny’s name is LLEWELLYN. And Llewellyn is being swept along (his bunny ears are even blown a bit forward) in a swirl of jewel-like golden leaves in a white birch forest.
Too much, too much! Too much beauty! And then, when Llewellyn uncaps his jar of golden birch leaves in his room at night, quietly and thoughtfully (ears standing straight now that he’s out of the wind), I could hardly stand it.
I was worried. Would “In a Jar” turn out to be just another beauty book to decorate my children’s bookshelves without ever being read? Would it be another gorgeous book that got dusty on the shelf?
I needn’t have worried.
Marcero’s prose is spare and tight, just a few words or a couple sentences per page, but like her illustrations, each word is gorgeously rendered and replete with both quietness and meaning. And they flow, they want to be read aloud, and like her illustrations, they want you to stay, just a little bit longer, on that page. Just say the words one more time. Just spend a little more time on that picture.
Marcero pauses between words, even on the same page. The layout is such that you have to take a moment when reading to look a little closer before moving on. Take this, when Llewellyn’s best friend has moved away and he wonders if they both see the same stars in the night sky:
“The next day, he prepared a package.”
Cutie patootie Llewellyn is packing a box and going to the post office. Then a plane flies from X (Llewellyn) to X (Evelyn — yes, his best friend is named “Evelyn,” and I can hardly stand it). Then Evelyn receives the package from the mailman.
“When the box arrived and Evelyn opened the jar, the stars in the night sky fell around her.”
It’s absolutely beautiful.
And not just to me, to my children too. I read “In a Jar” to myself first, and I wasn’t sure my kids, who are WIDE OPEN most of the time, would take to such a quiet story about bunnies. But they LOVED it. Oh my goodness, this book is magic.
Surely not every book that is gorgeously illustrated can be classified as a “beauty book,” but there can be no doubt that it is very, very special when the illustrations and the story are equally beautiful. Yes, when that happens, it is magic, whether it’s lighthouses, or little boys, or little girls, or even little bunnies.
Those are the books that we pass on to our children’s children, the ones that we never donate or pack away, the ones that may get a little dusty on the shelf, not because they are unread, but because they are waiting for the next child to come along and find the magic.
There are “beauty books,” and there are “beautiful books,” and “In a Jar” is beautiful.
Juanita Giles, a Randolph-Macon Woman’s College graduate, is the executive director and co-founder of the Virginia Children’s Book Festival.