Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thoreauly Bearable

If that punning headline bearly escapes being a self-defeating prophecy, I’m pretty sure some readers will consider it, not oxymoronic, but beary moronic indeed.

Undaunted, still I come, not to beary, but to praise author-illustrator D.B. Johnson who has created five incombearable works of wonder, a real handful, literally and figuratively, of picture books designed to please young readers, that are also wowing parents, librarians, kids’ book critics, and other adult readers—a nearly unbearalleled feat!

Who knew that Henry David Thoreau could be so much fun--aside from Johnson, that is. Intelligent and cranky? Yes. Confident to the point of arrogance? Sure. Full of Yankee ingenuity, yet uncannily attuned to the natural world? Goes without saying.

But a big, no-nonsense brown bear not so much roly-poly as brusque and solid, and still chockablock with dry wit, and folk wisdom, and expansive imagination? (Coulda fooled Emerson, I bet.) As the central conceit
for a series of children’s books, Thoreau the Bear works well, and Johnson has a great knack for ferretting out a few sentences or a single paragraph from Walden that he can expand visually, to present some aspect of the man’s social conscience or scientific method or Nature aesthetic—while also portraying Henry’s quiet, usually solitary discovery of beauty or connectivity or wonder.

Like many college students, there was a time when I was fascinated by Walden and its author, imagining that his hard-headed innocence—his native curiosity and cussed stubbornness--spoke to me directly. In fact, one year I worked as a gate guard, manning a lonely outpost on the University of Washington campus—specifically, the gatehouse and (then) dead-end
road leading to parking areas down behind the University Hospital and Health Sciences complex. Undisturbed for half-hours at a time, not only could I get classwork done, but I also scribbled a goofy journal of urban(e) observations--stealthily taking notes on the behavior of bearded doctors and chatty nurses, harried students and unhurried faculty, burly truck drivers and cadaverous cancer patients, and composing pithy philosophical dicta and witty remarks that such sightings inspired. Oh yes, I was convinced I was shaping a modern, city-wise Walden for bright, later 20th century minds… but of course after a few weeks my big plan faltered and fizzled and stopped.
(Right, I lost interest.)

Lethargy and self-doubt may have overwhelmed me, but clearly D.B. Johnson is made of sterner stuff. His books’ simple titles pretty much tell the story: Henry Hikes to Fitchburg; Henry Builds a Cabin; Henry Climbs a Mountain; Henry Works; and Henry’s Night.

Ah, but what visual magic animates those words, appearing on every page of the telling! The medium Johnson works in blends radiant color
pencils and richly colored paint; and the full-page illustrations offer a fractured perspective--sometimes the false geometry of all-sides-at-once Cubism, sometimes the irregular shards of a faulty kaleidoscope. But these uncommonly intriguing elements plus the simplified Walden text together make one smile happily as each story proceeds.

Thoreau for young kids (and wise adults)? Hey, works for me… and likely would for you too. Consider the plots of my two favorites:

Henry Builds a Cabin has the frugal bear buying lumber from a torn-down shed, assembling tools and plans, and then as he does the piecemeal construction having to explain to neighbors “Emerson,” “Alcott,” and others how his “too small” cabin grows considerably more spacious when the bean patch serves as his dining room, a sun-and-shade nook next to his cabin
becomes the library, stone steps leading down to the creek magically ‘morph into a ballroom for dancing, and the entire cabin is his umbrella when it rains. (And rain in Johnson’s rural New England landscapes is a particular visual wonder!)

Book 3, Henry Climbs a Mountain, gradually becomes a game of “Can You Top This?” as the principled bear—wearing only one boot and having refused to pay the taxman--is escorted to the local
hoosegow. (If the same famous incident, there is no visit by Emerson depicted, when he supposedly asked, “Henry, why are you in there?” and was answered, “Emerson, why are you out there?”)

Using crayons from his pocket, Henry first sketches his missing boot and then covers the walls and ceiling with drawings that carry him right out of the cell, over rocks and streams, and straight up a neighboring mountain where he views… a hawk gliding overhead, far-off terrain below, and a stranger walking toward him--who turns out to be an
escaped slave “riding” the Underground Railroad, following the “Drinking Gourd” and Northern Star on up to Canada. He is (of course) bear foot and still has a slave shackle around one ankle.

The two bears enjoy their world for a while, then Henry gives the escapee his boots and stumbles hurriedly back down the mountain, “arriving” in his cell just in time for breakfast and the news that someone has paid his taxes. He’s free once more; how does that feel? “Like being on top of a very tall mountain.” And so Henry departs—to buy a new pair of shoes!

The passage in Walden reads thus: “One afternoon, near the end of the first summer, when I went to the village to get a shoe from the cobbler’s, I was seized and put into jail, because I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the state which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle at the door of its senate-house.”

Using those words plus another quote, along with climbing experiences Thoreau wrote about, and a smidgin of magic realism, author-illustrator Johnson fashioned a
tale to remind us of that first Henry’s other important work, “Civil Disobedience,” the speech that gradually became a whole non-violent resistance doctrine, used so effectively by Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and other proponents of peace and freedom around the world. The list now also includes this year’s citizen actions in the streets of Cairo, Tripoli, Damascus, Athens, and… New York, Chicago, Oakland, Madison, Montreal, and more.

As the first Henry almost wrote,"The most of men lead lives of quiet occupation"--except for the millions who are underemployed and trying to live through the world recession and the sham of modern global capitalism. And all those folks must occupy themselves in other ways and other places, to reclaim their dignity and their rights… including the right to be there, anywhere, and their right to be here, period.

I doff my high-hat to both Henrys, with thanks, and to those who have bravely and angrily and desperately taken to the streets, I say:

Happy Trespass. Happy Transgression. Happy Thanksgiving.

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