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Once Upon a Memory

by Nina Laden; Renata Liwska, illus.

In their new picture book, American author Nina Laden and Canadian illustrator Renata Liwska aim to gently confront children with the themes of memory and change. Laden’s text, written in rhyming couplets, offers one line per double-page spread, each posing an unusual question designed to provoke the contemplation of time: “Does a feather remember it once was … a bird?” “Does a book remember it once was … a word?”

Liwska’s delicious illustrations strike a balance between cute and gloomy, showing a little boy interacting with the subject of the corresponding question. On each spread, cuddly forest animals depict imaginative tableaux suggesting a source for each subject, or perhaps a memory itself: a bird barbershop where feathers float like hair clippings, a bookshop populated by fuzzy critters. The final question – “Will you remember you once were … a child?” – brings the book’s ultimate message to the fore, the accompanying illustration showing a man (presumably the boy as a grown-up) looking at mementoes.

The interplay between Laden’s simple questions and Liwska’s rich illustrations infuses the book with layers of meaning. The idea that inanimate things might have memories is poetically seductive, but may be too esoteric for younger readers to grasp.    

Adults often sentimentalize childhood, longing for those years before grown-up concerns encroached on life. In a picture book, however, the idea of nostalgia – especially for childhood – is likely to prompt confusion in the intended audience. Once Upon a Memory is an exquisite book, but it seems more suited to the young at heart than the young in years.