Tracks in the Snow, by Wong Herbert Yee

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I’ve been reading a lot of picture books lately since I’ve been babysitting for a two-year-old. We’ve both fallen in love with this one. It starts with a child looking out the window at the snow and wondering what made the tracks there, and where the tracks go.

They (I’m deliberately using the plural because the child is not named and is not obviously a particular gender—part of the book’s charm) put on boots, coat and mittens (a skill my young friend has been working on recently) and go outside.

Following the tracks, the child wanders through typical landmarks for a little one: a garden gate, woods, some rocks and over a small footbridge. As they meander, they are shadowed by various animals: a squirrel, rabbit, fox, deer. The child considers what could have made the tracks: a duck? a woodchuck? a hippopotamus?

As you might have guessed, they follow the tracks all the way back to their own house and realise they themselves made these tracks the previous day.

This is a quiet book, like the snow’s hush, full of curiosity and imagination. The gentle illustrations are minimal, almost suggestions, yet they capture a child’s body language beautifully. Being snowy landscapes, of course there’s lots of white space.

In my opinion, the best picture books tell a story and, indeed, even in this brief text we have a full story. The protagonist is the child; the problem is to solve the mystery of the tracks. The antagonist is more abstract: ignorance, what we don’t know, the impenetrability of the world.

I remember as a preschooler being terrified by the vast sea of things I didn’t know. I knew my house and yard. I knew my block, more or less. But everything beyond that was a blank, simply inscrutable. For all I knew, there could be dragons. If I wandered off my block, how would I find my way back home?

Solving these mysteries, mapping out the nearby streets a little at a time, became my ambition. I think it’s partly why I enjoyed being a mechanic and then an engineer: understanding how cars and computers work. I never liked black boxes, those enigmatic spots in a flowchart labeled “Here the magic happens”.

So in this brief tale, I see not only an outward journey for our protagonist—following the tracks, answering the question—but an inner journey to satisfy that yearning to explore the world and begin to comprehend its mysteries.

What picture book have you read that you particularly enjoyed?

The Lord of the Rushie River, by Cicely Mary Barker

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When in need of comfort, I often turn to beloved books. In a recent article on the great writer’s website Writer Unboxed, author Juliet Marillier described some of her favorite and most treasured books, her keeper books. This picture book was the very first one she named. It is by the author of the Flower Fairy books, which I have long adored.

This story opens with Susan’s father, the Sailor, bidding her goodbye as he heads to sea again. In her sadness, she is comforted by a family of swans swimming nearby, one of whom, as a cygnet, had been rescued by her father when some boys had broken its leg.

Dame Dinnage, hired by her father to care for Susan in his absence, immediately drops her pretense of loving Susan, feeding her scraps and watered milk, refusing to mend or replace her clothes. All Dame Dinnage cares about is her stocking of money that grows heavier and heavier. Then she moves them to the city.

In her despair at never seeing her father again, Susan runs away, trying to make her way back to Rushiebanks. She is rescued by a swan, the one her father saved, now grown large and strong, and lives with the swans until he returns.

I’ve given away the ending, but you knew it would end happily. The delight is in the details and in the drawings by the author, some in color. Barker perfectly captures the timeless voice of a young girl. Here is a short passage from Susan’s flight from the city:

It was still the dark night; but in one house a dim light burned in an upstairs window. It gave her a feeling of company; it might be the night-light of a little girl like herself. She crept into a corner of the creeper-covered porch, and rested there.

I was lucky to find a used copy of this lovely book and will treasure it and share it with the young people in my life. I’m grateful to Juliet Marillier for introducing me to it.

One of the benefits of the Writer Unboxed site is that people leave comments on every post. I culled more ideas from other people’s comments on Juliet’s post. Here are the keeper books that I posted in my comment:

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The Diamond in the Window, by Jane Langton. As a child I didn’t realise that this tale of magic and danger was based on aspects of Transcendentalist philosophy. I simply loved it, and the images in it are still touchstones for me.

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The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett inspired a lifelong love of gardening and Yorkshire. I walked the Dales Way this summer.

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The Scent of Water, by Elizabeth Goudge. I first read this as a teen and, on re-encountering it later, realised how much it had influenced my personal philosophy, my beliefs, and my view of the world and relationships.

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Parzival, by Wolfram von Eschenbach. Innocence, quests, and honor: this book took my childhood love of King Arthur stories into adulthood.

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The Hobbit & Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkein. One rarely mentioned aspect of these books is their maps and songs and barely remembered histories, which gave me a love of scholarship that has carried me through formal schooling and beyond.

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Birds of Paradise, by Paul Scott. This early novel by the author of the Raj Quartet resonated so deeply with me that I come back to it again and again. A coming of age story, it makes me consider the unreliability of childhood memory and the place of Arthurian honor and glory in today’s world.

What are some of your keeper books?