Book Scene: “The Best Journey Yet”

Bonding with Art, Books, and Children

By Stuart Mitchner

After a visit to the Princeton Public Library in search of art therapy books for children, I came home with an armload, including one seemingly intended for serious, thinking adults, Alain de Botton and John Armstrong’s heavily illustrated tome, Art as Therapy (Phaidon 2013, paperback 2016). In fact, some reviewers treated both book and audience disparagingly. Elle called it a “cultural cure for what ails you” while Vanity Fair on Art gave it credit for massaging “the mind in all the right places.” Taking it to task in the New York Times (“Patronizing the Arts”), Parul Sehgal chided the authors for dreaming of the day “when museums can be redesigned as gyms for the psyche.” Sehgal also included an illustration from the book, a museum floor plan arranged according to therapeutic needs. Above the cafe and shop are five floors, the first a Gallery of Suffering, followed in ascending order by galleries of Compassion, Fear, Love, and Self-Knowledge. As Sehgal noted, de Botton had been accused of condescending to his readers, regarding them as “ants,” or more to my point, as children, as if this weighty book were little more than a child’s guide to art therapy on steroids.

The Best Journey Yet

I had better luck in the third-floor Children’s Department, especially once I gave up looking for attractively packaged volumes with “therapy” in the title.

The first book on the New Releases table that caught my eye was Taiwanese American illustrator Julia Kuo’s Let’s Do Everything and Nothing (Roaring Brook Press 2022), with the subtitle Being together is the best journey yet. Marketed for ages 3 to 6, grades preschool to first, the closest it comes to the art-as-therapy premise is the possibility that, perhaps with some parental prompting, the child will appreciate the beauty of Kuo’s artwork in contrast to wacky, playful, free-form books like Hop on Pop by the inimitable Dr. Seuss. The scope of the title’s “Everything” is conveyed in a spectacular opening vista (“Will you climb a hill with me?”), a two-page spread showing mother and daughter standing hand in hand gazing on a landscape in soft shades of purple and grey, under a full moon, a V-shaped flock of geese in the distant sky. The pages that follow extend the “everything” idea to include imagined mother-daughter adventures diving into a lake, viewing a starry sky, scaling the highest peak, “gasping” at creatures of the deep — activities that could only be dreamed of at the time of the pandemic-mandated lockdown during which this book was conceived and created.

The first half of Let’s Do Everything and Nothing culminates in the not entirely child-friendly question, “Will we reach the very top, the very bottom, the very end?” The answer “We will” is delivered with the book’s most spectacular image, a beautiful two-page panorama showing the two tiny figures atop a mountain peak. By contrast, what follows are scenes of domestic intimacy, bathing, resting, dozing, the sort of “doing nothing” implied by the “the best journey” of simply being together, the underlying therapy prescribed for sheltering in place.

Animals on the Move

In another book on the New Releases table, Sea Lions in the Parking Lot (mineditionsUS 2021), the lockdown environment is made explicit in the subtitle, Animals on the Move in a Time of Pandemic. Leonora Todaro’s text is amusingly written, while the illustrations by Annika Siems are big, bold, and colorful, especially the two-page spread of a herd of Sika deer riding a subway escalator. The book’s back cover shows two sea lions basking alongside a closed Fish & Chips food truck, with the message: “When people get out of the way, animal habitats grow — and scientists have a new chance to learn how we can best share the Earth.” Obviously, this is a form of therapy-for-the-young-mind (readers ages 4-8) that might make the book a target for red-state school districts. There’s even an epilogue about how the “anthropause” resulting from the pandemic “taught people something exciting about the connection between humans and animals.” A 2022 Green Earth Book Award Long List Nominee, Sea Lions contains “some of the few joyous tales told about the pandemic,” according to a New York Times review. This is Todaro’s debut children’s book; her work has appeared in the Times, The Atlantic, and Salon. Although Siems has won numerous awards for her illustrations, this is also her first children’s book.

Drum Therapy

My Life with Down Syndrome (Amicus Ink 2020) by Mari Schuh, with art by Isabel Muñoz, provides images of “racial diversity” with a “dyslexic-friendly font.” It is part of the My Life With [ADHD, Autism, Blindness, Deafness, and Dyslexia] series, which wins praise from School Library Journal as an “essential series for virtually any collection.” Based on a real-life boy named Peter, the book describes how he deals with the challenges of Down syndrome. As the cover suggests, he loves music, most of all playing drums. Schuh is the author of hundreds of nonfiction books for beginning readers, covering topics from tomatoes to tornadoes. Muñoz works in a studio she says is based in “a tiny, cloudy, green and lovely town in the north of Spain.”

In Time of War

While I was browsing in the Children’s Department, a librarian handed me a list of picture books chosen for their relevance to the invasion of Ukraine and the resulting refugee crisis. Among the titles were The Day the War Came by Nicola Davies, with illustrations by Rebecca Cobb (Candlewick 2018), which begins, “The day the war came there were flowers on the window sill.” Then there’s The Cat Man of Aleppo (Putnam’s 2020) by Karim Shamsi-Basha, with a message from the real-life cat man, Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel, who offered safe haven to Aleppo’s abandoned cats during the Syrian Civil War. For readers ages 6 to 12, Jacqueline B. Toner and illustrator Janet McDonnell’s What to Do When the News Scares You: A Kid’s Guide to Current Events (Magination Press 2021) offers the constructive therapy of “short, interactive lessons about media tactics interspersed with exercises to help kids cope with the strong emotions that can accompany exposure to scary news.” In the same notice, Kirkus Reviews notes that children are “invited to become investigators, with the book providing spaces for them to jot down observations each time they learn a new aspect of reporting, including camera angles, opinions versus facts,” the therapeutic message being “From knowledge comes power over emotions.”

A Ukrainian Mouse

Families hosting refugees from the Ukraine war could make good use of The Fabulous Lost & Found and the Little Ukrainian Mouse (Neu Westend Press 2020), a bilingual English/Ukrainian book for kids ages 4 to 8 who want to learn Ukrainian words. Published at the onset of the pandemic, two years before Vladimir Putin’s invasion, the book is by Mark Pallis with illustrations by Peter Baynton. The plot centers on a little mouse who walks into a Lost & Found run by Mr. and Mrs. Frog, who don’t speak Ukrainian. This “story-powered language learning method” helps kids learn more than 40 simple Ukrainian words and phrases. Author Mark Pallis sees the book as his way of “helping little learners engage with a new language, empathize with strangers, and ultimately build a love of languages.” Better yet, the kids “don’t know they’re learning,” a subtly effective form of therapy, from the sound of it. As Pallis says, “All the learning is a bonus; the icing on the cake.”

Art Appreciation Writ Large

Another book discovered among the library’s new releases for children is What Isabella Wanted: Isabella Stewart Gardner Builds a Museum (Neal Porter Books 2021) by award-winning author Candace Fleming and Caldecott Medal-winning author and illustrator Matthew Cordell. As the cover image suggests, the fabulously wealthy heiress is seen as an exuberant, welcoming, fashionably coiffed devotee of great art. No doubt there’s an element of psychological therapy in correcting kneejerk first impressions of “stuffy subjects” like art and wealth and museums. In that sense, this is a book encouraging appreciation rather than engaging in the sort of curative patronization Art as Therapy has been accused of. Isabella is presented as a free spirit who “wore baseball gear to the symphony, greeted her guests perched in a potted palm tree, strolled zoo lions up Beacon Street,” and found adventure in “heart-soaring, mind-seizing, world-shifting art.”

I’ve felt a special closeness to the Gardner collection ever since the afternoon my wife, son, and I spent there in August 1989. The following March, 13 pieces worth an estimated $500 million were stolen, including Vermeer’s The Concert, one of the paintings I spent the most time with. Fleming and Cordell feature a blue-tinted graphic showing the thieves at work “under cover of darkness,” cutting the canvases out of the frames: “Then thieves and treasures disappeared into the night.” The fact that one of the stolen paintings was the Vermeer still haunts me. Maybe there’s a lesson in the coincidence about the transient, vulnerable nature of all art and how important it is for us to take the time to calmly, quietly, and thoughtfully appreciate it.