This is a very special book.
As a tangible thing, it is beautiful. Slip off the dustjacket: the textured, river-stained binding is instantly worth every penny.
Though candidly told, in a large, frank font, with simple words and objects of childhood, it is articulated and illustrated with awing mastery by poet Jordan Scott, and artist Sydney Smith.
Was it intentional that the layout of the first page and some of the subsequent pages conveys a sense of stutter? The images are broken, so that details of light and pattern are more immediate than a grasp of the whole. They are pieces on the page — intriguing, magical pieces. But they convey a struggle.
And struggle is the nub of the story: it’s a story about wrestling with a stutter. As Jordan Scott, an award winning poet, explains in an afterword, the story is drawn from his own experience, an experience of ‘intricately intimate labors with words, sound, and body’ to shape speech.
At its climax, the story’s art opens out: the pages unfold into a 34 & 1/2 inch flow of watery light, with a little boy shimmering in the center. Blindingly immersed in the whole.
Scott makes connections between the boy’s struggle and the natural world throughout, not just with metaphors but with mouthfuls of poetic consonance and onomatopoeia. I love the inner silence in the illustrations: sound is mostly ‘out there’, behind a glass, faraway in the front of a classroom. They show us loneliness and love — how it feels to struggle with words and the world they articulate, how it feels to shatter that world with sound, how it feels to come to rest in an often wordless, lyric tenderness; in the sunlight, in the water, in the time a father spends with his child. I love how that centerfold image captures the gift Scott’s father gave him, which he describes with dazzling eloquence in the afterword: an acceptance of his stutter as a ‘natural, patient force’.
If the goal of speech is a particular form of fluency, a stutter is fragmenting and disruptive. But our definitions of fluency are self-referential to the mechanics of speaking. A river’s goal, Scott explains, is bigger than itself.
And the goal of expressive hearts — mediated by words, or unmediated — just looking for waterbugs together in the late afternoon — is bigger than mechanics. It is even blindingly immersive of them. This is an exquisitely crafted book for anyone, adult or child, who knows what it feels like: those hot, heady, awkward, often frustrated efforts to shape the wonder of words.