‘How to Read a Picture Book’ by David Hayden

A cigar-smoking squirrel gives a gang of kids in Central Park a lecture on picture books. Or a man daydreams the same. Whether he’s a figment or real, Sorry the Squirrel exists for the length of time it takes us to read Hayden’s wonderful story, and the wisdom and beauty of what he says persists long after we finish it. Some of the books he talks about – Amos and Boris, Ulysses – are real, and some are tantalisingly not:

how about that book Tiger Night where the baby tiger can’t sleep and the daddy tiger has to keep reading him stories until they both fall asleep at the end. Now, if you take the first letter of each line and put them together it spells: “SAMSAMCALLMEPLEASE”. On the last page there’s the picture of the tigers asleep on the sofa in the living room and on the wall there’s a mirror and in it you can just make out a telephone number.

Sorry moves through words, pictures, point of view, setting and time. “There’s plenty you can’t say with words,” he says. “You can fall through words down into a seething belly world of billions of objects and notions, all shrieking or hiding”. Denis Johnson says something similar, from a writer’s perspective, in his story ‘Triumph Over the Grave’, the narrator of which shares something of his pedagogical delivery with Sorry the Squirrel:

Whatever happens to you, you put it on a page, work it into a shape, cast it in a light. It’s not much different, really, from filming a parade of clouds across the sky and calling it a movie – although it has to be admitted that the clouds can descend, take you up, carry you to all kinds of places, some of them terrible, and you don’t get back where you came from for years and years.

Yes, the writing of words can take years and take you along all manner of strange routes, and the reading of them can contain years, too. In his discussion of time, Hayden gives Sorry some of my favourite lines from the past year of reading:

In Amos and Boris months go by as the mouse sails his homemade boat out into the ocean, hours pass as he floats in the swell slowly drowning. He’s rescued by the whale in an instant and their friendship endures for years. The book takes only ten minutes to read but it has all this time packed inside, and when you remember reading it that time returns to you adding to your own small portion. Reading can slow time to a drip, drip, or push it on in a rushing, sinewy torrent like a snow-fed river in spring. Books let you circle around time, find the root of time, lose time, recover time. People will tell you that reading – especially stories – is a waste of time. Don’t believe them for a second.

The time one story can give back to you can also unlock that of other stories, as the reading of one triggers the memory of another: one door leading to another and another, like the doors in the cement blocks on Traven’s island (“As he walked from the perimeter line into the centre of the massif, line upon line of the small metal doors appeared and receded”). ‘How to Read a Picture Book’, and Hayden’s work generally, teaches us to read more attentively and more thoughtfully. It’s a lesson I often forget and never tire of being retaught, whether by man or by squirrel.

From Darker With the Lights On, Little Island 2017

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