I Talk Like a River by Jordan Scott, illustrated by Sydney Smith, Walker Books (UK), first published by Neal Porter Books (USA)
‘I stay quiet as a stone.’
Outside the rain is bucketing down, our water tank is being emptied and cleaned, the kererū are still, the tūī are quiet and I am lost in a children’s book. I have read five sublime children’s books in a row over the past week and today I Talk Like a River feels like the most perfect children’s book I have ever read. It is the winner of The Schneider Family Book Award among loads of others.
Ah. This is such a special book. It is the story of a young boy who stutters. He wakes up in the morning and finds letters for things, but can’t make the sounds of all the words. He is teased at school and it is a nightmare when the teacher asks him a question.
I am not going to ruin the unfolding story by telling you what happens. That would simply spoil the magic.
Instead I am going to tell you how sad I felt about the young boy. That is the power of a good story. It makes you feel. And then like a book miracle I felt joy as I read because the words are so lovingly tended. Jordan Scott is a Canadian poet and it shows in this sweetly crafted book about the struggle to speak out loud. Poetry often plays with how words fit in your ear like music, and Jordan’s words are music on the page. Listen to the honeyed murmur of alliteration. Then sink into the metaphors that help us move closer to what the boy feels.
in pine tree
inside my mouth
The boy’s father is a treasure. He takes his troubled son to the river. Jordan tells us in his moving endnote that he is a stutterer, and how his father helped him.
I am reading this story thinking about how we all have different fluencies: when we write poems, tell stories, choose what clothes to wear, plant a garden, bake a cake, sing a song, walk down the road, swim in the river, try to fit in, speak. I am thinking we sometimes need different ways of seeing and understanding how we are. How we manage the obstacles we face. The boy’s father gets this. How I love his wisdom. How we can learn from him.
Sydney Smith’s illustrations are also perfect. They are like smudgy watercolour washes that offer impressions and are mood rich. The boy sometimes worries his face shows his troubled scared state when the other children mock and sneer. The faces in the book are often smudged and hard to decipher as though the paint is finding its own stuttery fluency. Utterly sublime.
I will carry this book in my heart for a long time. I hope it finds a home in the hearts of young (and older) New Zealanders.
A New York Times Best Children’s Book of the Year
An American Library Association Notable Children’s Book
Named a Best Book of the Year by The Wall Street Journal, People Magazine, NPR, Kirkus Reviews, Shelf Awareness, Bookpage, School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Publishers Lunch, and more!
A Horn Book Fanfare Best Book of the Year
A Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection
A Chicago Public Library Best Book of the Year
A CBC Best Picture Book of the Year