Two picture books bring out the power of silence, almost making it a character in its own right. In one, silence of the listener is an enabler in getting over the grief of the protagonist. In the other, it is the silence of the protagonist, and the choice she exercises in when to break it, that acts as the healer. Both powerful stories of dealing with losses, a fleeting, almost inconsequential one in the first, a heart-breaking, permanent one in the latter.
THE RABBIT LISTENED has to be the haloed one among my favourites because it is the first title I pull out each time I am interacting with a bunch of parents over how and why they need to embrace picture books before introducing their little ones to them.
It’s a deceptively simple book because it hides one of the greatest truths about what relationships often get wrong – the art of making way for companionable silence and space between two people under a gamut of circumstances and situations. To put it crudely, it’s about the finer art of keeping our unsolicited two-bits to ourselves when we see the other/s in a quandary, in grief, or any unpalatable emotion that gets labelled as not a positive one. We are always the one to suggest ways of getting them to do things that could make them feel better. But how often do we have the patience of just being around a person without a word of ‘you-shoulds and ‘you ought-tos and ‘why don’t yous? And then stick around some more until the person finally decides to begin to unburden and act?
In this book, young Taylor sits in utter sadness, fury and frustration when the building blocks he has been carefully stacking up come crashing, thanks to some birds flying past. What follows is what you and I are well familiar with: a string of friendly advice from one and all about what he should be doing next.
The first to come and commiserate (and offer advice) is the chicken.
The bear is next. Then the elephant. And one by one, many others came, poured out their dos and don’ts.
“But Taylor didn’t feel like doing anything with anybody.
So eventually, they all left…and Taylor was alone.”
And then a rabbit appears just as quietly as the others were loud, vocal and lugging their opinions around.
“In the quiet, Taylor didn’t even notice the rabbit.
But it moved closer and closer. Until Taylor could feel its warm body.”
These words are a sparkling example of how effectively picture books speak a thousand words in barely five.
What follows is a most beautiful tango between the silence of the boy and that of the rabbit, something that elevates it to one of my most-loved picture book reads in as long as I can remember.
“Together they sat in silence until Taylor said, ‘Please stay with me.’
The rabbit listened.”
The rabbit sits there listening as Taylor begins to talk and shout and work his way around within himself to pour out all his anger and frustration until he feels enough lightness come over him to make him want to rebuild.
And unlike the other animals who had come there to be heard more than to listen, “through it all, the rabbit never left.”
I haven’t come across a more beautiful and powerful set of simple words that shows genuine care.
In the other book NO LONGER ALONE, a young girl not much older than Taylor, is dealing with the crushing loss of his mother. The text doesn’t explicitly say it; and that’s the most powerful way in which a picture book works by leaving things unsaid so that the visuals flow in to fill the textual gaps, thereby making it one of the most potent formats of books that engage all your senses as you flip the pages. There are visual cues, just like there are in our lives when we go about meeting strangers, friends. It’s in how well we ‘read’ the other’s version of their life through what they chose to tell us what they don’t, that we create our impressions of them. Our relationships are hinged around what we choose to do with the explicitly communicated and our perceptions of what’s not.
The girl recedes into her silent cocoon to make sense of the loss she is facing. The others who see her end up labelling her as ‘shy’, ‘quiet’, one who ‘doesn’t like to run about’. But as she tells the reader,
“I’m not shy, I just don’t feel like talking right now”.
She may have chosen to not enter into a dialogue with the world around her, but we, the privileged reader, are privy to what’s going inside her; she invites us in. It’s through the interplay between her opening up to the reader and this external silence and withdrawal from the busy, noisy, supposedly-active world around her that we get a peek inside her lost and broken heart.
She does end up breaking her silence, as did Taylor, but only when she feels safe enough to with a person who just wants her to “try to be the old (her)”.
“The loud-and-active you, the happy you, the you, you used to be.”
Her dad. Someone who takes us right back to the rabbit, the listener.
And just like in the other book, that’s when she opens up. And her silence turns into a deluge of out-pouring.
“And I tell him that was the old me, the before me, the once-upon-a-time me, the before-I-was-sad me, before we were alone.
I tell him how I don’t feel myself right now, how I feel different, like someone else, I tell him all the things that are worrying me, upsetting me, making me feel alone.”
And this, the dad now sitting in silence on a park bench that overlooks the rest of the city in the distance while being totally present with her in the moment, absorbs from her. He listens.
And through this act of listening, which is the most dependable companion and partner to silence, he gives his daughter her pulse back.
“And right NOW,” she says, “starts to feel different.”
How the mood begins to lift up and how her feet begin to skip and her voice begins to travel.
And as we hear her a few pages later, “…we no longer feel alone.”
As a generation of Facebook and Whatsapp parents, our days begin and end on a staple diet of quotable inspiring quotes on mindfulness et al, supplemented by some more on the how-tos of being fully there with our children in that moment we are together. It is the marvel that picture books are, gathering the deepest life lessons within their folds in the simplest of ways. If only we care to read between the powerful lines and visuals.
As I don’t tire of repeating, a well-crafted picture book can never let us down. They never do.