Review of the Day: The Swing by Robert Louis Stevenson
There comes a moment in a new parent’s life when they realize that they have become their own parents. It’s different for everyone. For some folks it won’t happen until they’re berating their teenagers, conjuring up terms and threats from their own youth that they swore they’d never use. For others, it happens at practically the moment after conception. And for me, it happened when I read my one-year-old daughter Julie Morstad’s simply irresistible adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic poem The Swing. As I read the book aloud I realized that I had heard this poem myself as a child. I could even recall the images that accompanied it, filled with sickly sweet children with cheeks so large they’d make the Campbell Soup kids seem wan in comparison. And when later I heard my own mother recite this poem I was amazed to discover that my reading, which I’d done several time for my own daughter, contained the exact same cadences and turns of phrase as my mother’s rendition. The difference for my daughter will be the fact that while the art accompanying my The Swing was tepid, the images that appear in Julie Morstad’s gorgeous little board book are utterly lovely creations. For all those parents desperate to introduce their toddlers to poetry, or just folks who want to read their kids something beautiful for once, here is the answer to your prayers.
“How do you like to go up in a swing / Up in the air so blue?” I should think you’d like it very much if you were one of the children in Julie Morstad’s clever little book. Adapting Robert Louis Stevenson’s words, Ms. Morstad fills her pages with kids on their way up, their way down, and everywhere in-between. They glide under cherry blossoms, observe the even rows of plants and vegetables, and swing like superheroes on their bellies. The result is a haunting but thoroughly enjoyable update to a poem that feels as fresh and fun as it was the day it was first published in the late 1800s.
Etsy has been a simultaneous boon and problem for the children’s picture book world. On the one hand, there is no better place for editors to find up and coming artists. Never before has a public forum of this scope yielded such rich artistic talent. On the other hand, there is a kind of Etsy “look” that typifies the people found there. It’s what allows reviewers like myself to view certain kinds of children’s books and sniff “Etsy” when we want to put them down. Now at a first glance Morstad’s work on The Swing might strike you as falling in the Etsy vein. An unfair assumption since as far as I can tell Ms. Morstad sells her art herself and not through Etsy. More to the point, this book is better than that. Granted I wouldn’t mind taking some of the images found in the book and framing them on my wall (particularly that cover image with the black background and white haired girl swinging through a field of vibrant blossoms). But there’s a quality to Ms. Morstad’s art that feels more than merely trendy. There’s a lot of beauty here, and it ties in directly to the subject matter.
Books about swinging for children are the one-act plays of children’s literature. Tied entirely to a single place where the vertical is exchanged for the horizontal, it’s hard to make a narrative around swinging. Indeed that’s probably why books like Higher Higher by Leslie Patricelli have been for the very young set while Tricia Tusa’s Follow Me has looked at other aspects of swinging entirely (colors, etc.). The best attempt at the genre was probably Joe Cepeda’s The Swing which had a kind of Calvin & Hobbes type of plot. Morstad’s adaptation of Stevenson’s poem is smart because rather than show a single kid just going up and down and down and up she shows a wide range of children swinging in all kinds of different settings.
Looking at the book itself I was impressed by the design of the thing. It fools you for the first few pages, allowing you to think that you’re reading yet another book where the text is on one page and the images on the other. Yet when you reach the lines “Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing / Ever a child can do!” the words curve and dive around two tow-headed children, swinging against a verdant green background. Each image carries with it a distinctive mood and feel. There’s one scene of a child swinging over “River and trees and cattle and all” while a midday sun sinks red towards the horizon. Of course I’ve already mentioned my favorite image in the book, which is the one on the cover. Happily Ms. Morstad comes full circle with that girl. She appears at first on the cover, and then once again at the end of the book with the final lines “Up in the air and down!” There you see her white hair, little pink shoes, and jet black background in place. This time, however, her swinging has definitely slowed down and she regards the reader with a small smile and a sense of complacency you can’t help but envy. Plus the fluorescent flowers are cool. Like those.
I am pleased to report that while I dislike it when folks use their own children as control groups, determining whether or not a book works, in this particular case I feel no guilt in reporting that my one-year-old is a fan. I’m not sure if it’s the engrossing images, the way the sentences are split up on the pages, or the way the poem sounds on my tongue, but whatever the case Morstad’s The Swing is definitely doing something right. Evocative and mesmerizing all at once, this is one book that is sure to engage kids right from the get-go. With its new packaging, Stevenson’s classic feels as fresh and new as anything you’ll find on your bookstore and library shelves today. Beautiful. There’s no other word for it.
On shelves October 20th.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson, illustrated by Tasha Tudor
- Higher Higher by Leslie Patricelli
- Follow Me by Tricia Tusa
And here is the rather lovely book trailer for this rather lovely book.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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