If you are not a bird watcher, your first bird hike can be excruciating. In 45 minutes you can cover 500 yards in the assorted company of people who stand, stare and occasionally mumble odd phrases like “wing-bar,” “downy,” and “drink-your-tea.” The experience can be a little surreal until you also enter into that surreal world, a world of marvel and wonder revealed by the chance sighting of—sometimes just a chickadee.
Some children’s literature is like that too. The Little Island, written by Margaret Wise Brown under the pen name Golden MacDonald, is a bit like a bird hike and can evoke the same extremes of reactions as a bird hike. I quickly discovered this as I passed the book to two of my children who were then in middle school. They gave it a quick flip. “That’s dumb.” Well, I kept the book. I love it. I gave it to my husband to read. He loves it. It is a treasure of Ageless Children’s Literature that can slip you into that same sort of looking, wondering, hoping, musing enchantment that one can find on a bird hike. But one must be in the right frame of mind to read it. There is nothing so annoying a stilted, halting bird hike when your mission is actually to hike to the end of the park and back, or in the case of middle school-aged children, to run to the end of the park and back. Truly “bird hike” is a misnomer. There is also nothing so annoying as a philosophical children’s book when you are just looking for a rip-roaring yarn. But there is a time and a place, and a mood and a mind for both.
My copy of The Little Island, illustrated by Leonard Weisgard, has a lovely cover picturing a small, golden island in a teal sea. Sailing toward that island is a small, black cat in a tall, white sailboat. If I stare at that picture, I can feel the crackle of a story rising. How does it all connect? Cat and island, sea and boat, sky and tree. I turn the page hoping to learn and I do learn—sort of. You can’t always trust a cover. The Little Island does not slip you into the world of a nautical adventurer but into the world of the naturalist. From page to page, the images change and vary like so many thoughts bobbing over the waves. Where are we going? Nowhere in particular, it seems. We are wandering over the island, diving into the water, looking into the sky, and just seeing what we see. A bird hike, indeed.
Curiously in the middle of this naturalist stroll, we are given a parable or a medieval dream sequence, if you will. Perhaps this is what happens when one is still and silent before the natural world, watching, and observing, and simply being. You fall into contemplation or a dream, and the world begins to speak to you. In this sequence, a kitten arrives on the island, and the kitten and the island begin to converse. The kitten acknowledges to the island that he is small like the island, but notes that he is part of the big world while the island, cut off by all the water, is not. The island disagrees, but does not argue. Instead the island calls witnesses. The island tells the kitten to go ask any fish. The fish is willing to show the kitten exactly how the island is connected to all the world, but the kitten soon realizes that the evidence is a secret of the watery, deep sea into which the kitten cannot go. The fish tells the kitten that he must then take the knowledge on faith. “What’s that?” the kitten asks. And the fish teaches the kitten what faith is, namely “to believe what I tell you about what you don’t know.” Verily, the fish teaches a lesson in faith as well as in humility. Yet, knowing there is a secret he cannot grasp somehow brings the kitten joy.
The little kitten gets back in his boat and sails away, and we find ourselves in the ordinary world of a naturalist hike once again. Having woken from our contemplative dream, we find we are wiser. We know we can try to fill in gaps in our understanding of the world by noticing the trees and bushes, butterflies and moths, fireflies in the dark, storms at sea, and the passing of autumn and winter. We know we can find the marvelous by observing the ordinary and by being open to what it has to say. We, like the kitten, do not always see the connections, but we must trust and take it on faith that the connections are there. To know there is much we do not know, to know it may reveal itself at anytime—if only we remain receptive—is to walk in faith, humility, and hope. The Little Island closes on a content and satisfied note: “It was good to be a little Island. A part of the world and a world of its own all surrounded by the bright blue sea.” Yes, it is good. This satisfaction is the satisfaction of the island knowing itself and its place in the world. It brings a contentment of which we feel we have some share.
Bird hikes, naturalist hikes, and good literature are very rich fare. One cannot always be enjoying them, especially since they can plunge one into unexpected dreams, contemplations, and enchantments. Like the little kitten we must keep our feet on the ground; we cannot always be “a little fur island in the air”—there are ordinary things to which we must all attend. Yet here is this book with an invitation to see the extraordinary. I just give a kindly warning to readers that The Little Island is not a seafaring adventure but an adventure in observation. And, of course, The Little Island is a picture book too. Young children are its first intended audience, and it is the childlike who can go through the pages and simply say, “I liked the cat.”
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