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Fish Flying Up

Picture this:

A very big woman
in a red dress
walked down the street
with three cross-eyed dogs.

When the dogs saw a yellow car
they started to bark.
The barking woke Aunt Ida,
who immediately started to sing.
The singing woke Uncle Morris,
who immediately started
to dance.

Now listen:

Aunt Ida had a party.
The whole family was there.

Mr. Zelikovitch brought his son,
the genius, who was always
eating herring and
reading books.
Sara, the beauty, sat in the
middle of the room
peeling apples.
Leon brought ten warm cakes
and Aunt Rose wore her bathing suit,
because she swims in the ocean
every day.

Oh, I can’t very well let Maira Kalman write this for me – though I am tempted. Back in my earliest efforts at parenthood, when our reading selection consisted of a dozen or so books in endless rotation, and Amazon wasn’t invented, or Google, and nobody was trying to figure out how to make a career out of publishing their daily ruminations to a world wide audience – back in those dark ages then, my equally amateur firstborn and I read about four tiny people walking past a school room carrying tiny instruments, a thin skinny man seeing fish flying up, a green faced scientist named Ervin who knew everything about nothing, and a dog named Max who was always trying to sneak out of the house to live in Paris and write poems. Here’s one:

“Dig that boy
with the box
on his head.
Is he buying bread?
Is his name Fred?
And that tall noodle woman
with the polka-dot shoes –
have you ever seen
a nose so red?”

What this was supposed to signify exactly, we had no idea. That was before Max grew up too and got his own titles, and Maira Kalman dreamed up many New Yorker covers, and books for grown ups, and books for children, and I bought some, and hundreds of other picture books too, and foisted them on my second son, both of us a little wiser this time around, and wrote many windy things to try and explain my fascination, my admiration, my adoration for this genre. 

And yet there is finally so much that can never be explained, or communicated, about that boy with the box on his head, and why out of everything else from those years he should have stayed with me, that most of the time I’m convinced I’m just dancing around the edges of these books, and lighting sparklers, and declaiming significantly in the hopes that anyone should want to join me, and find for themselves some sparkly significance I never thought to look for. 

There’s a lot to choose from here too, if you’re not already blinkered by those flying fish: flowers and dancers and violinists and acrobats and painters and people falling off chairs and shouting bravo (what this does not have is a lot of punctuation). Here is nominally a story about a girl telling her younger brother stories around bedtime, but, like all of Kalman’s work, it has the feeling of a party you’re lucky enough to be invited to – which any insomniac will tell you is what we’re really worried about. I don’t know if this book will ever help you get to sleep (in fact I’m pretty skeptical about stories that try and talk me into anything), but it might well reassure you of our facility – as readers, and listeners, and dreamers – to reach across to one another through even the most penetrating darkness.

Filed Under:  Art    Language    Sleep  

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