Children are natural deconstructionists. Fired up by imaginations perpetually stuck on overdrive, kids will interrogate their environment until they are satisfied they have got to the bottom of things. Which is to say, never.
Marie-Louise Gay knows this curiosity well. A surprisingly large part of being the creator of children’s books involves standing in front of groups of young readers who are not satisfied with merely meeting an author or hearing her read. They want more. Specifically, they want to know things like, “How many books do you make in one day?” and, “How did you learn to draw?” and, “Do you put a cat in every book?” and, “Can your cat fly?”
Gay answers all of these queries and more in her new picture book, Any Questions? It’s a smart, slightly meta exploration of creativity and the art of storytelling – which sounds unforgivably dry, but is actually a lot of fun. The book opens with Gay depicting herself as a child, the kind who used to sit at a table full of art supplies, wondering whether trees could talk and if she could be a dog when she grew up. Fast-forwarding a few decades, she turns the floor over to a gaggle of inquisitive children (including one who appears to be Stella, Gay’s most popular creation). The kids (plus a talking cat and a bunny) fling a dozen or so questions at her. She decides to run with, “Where does a story start?” and enlists the group to help her create a fable.
They begin, of course, with blank pages of paper in various colours. A white sheet becomes a snowstorm. A sea-blue page becomes an underwater scene. A green sheet becomes a jungle. Then they try a different approach, writing out random phrases and words until one catches: “Once upon a time, a million years ago, or was it only yesterday, in a dark, green mossy forest …”
From there, Gay builds a story about a “shy young giant with birds nesting in her hair.” In keeping with the how-it-gets-made theme of the book, even choosing the right protagonist involves a few false starts, with lots of shouted suggestions and criticisms by her young, outspoken collaborators. These apparent wrong turns are what give Any Questions? its undeniable sense of energy and verve, and Gay uses myriad visual approaches – scribbles, sketches, scraps of paper, blotches of paint – to depict the inherently messy nature of artistic creation.
The tale of the shy giant is fairly genteel, until the kids decide to throw in an “abominable, wretched, ferocious beast” with gnashing teeth and a bad attitude. Gay then wrests back control, and ends things with the giant calming the beast by reading it a story – the very one she and the kids just created together. The end of the fable – and of Gay’s book – make clear that art is not simply there to be consumed, and that the restlessness of a child’s imagination is to be encouraged, not quelled – even when the kids push back against ideas they see as lame or clichéd. (“Not another princess story!” shouts one girl, who’d much rather be depicted as a powerful wizard.)
Indeed, compared with the energy and hijinks of Any Questions?, Gay’s other new book, Princess Pistachio, can’t help but seem a bit flat. Princess Pistachio is a straight-up illustrated early reader about Pistachio Shoelace, a young girl who receives a crown in the mail on her birthday and decides this means – as she always suspected – that she is a princess. The alternate origin story she tells herself involves an envious witch stealing her from her royal parents on the island of Papua and depositing her with boring alternate parents and an annoying little sister. The crown is a sign that her long-lost regal heirs have found her at last.
Gay’s tale is a clever twist on the many, many secret-destiny stories that haunt children’s literature (not to mention children’s own imaginations.) The newly self-aware Princess
Pistachio immediately begins demanding special treatment and refusing to do common chores, until she is brought back to reality by her non-royal grandfather, who tells her the crown was a gift from him. When her sister goes missing, Pistachio decides she must still be as brave as a princess, and sets out to find her.
The book, originally written in French and with a forthcoming sequel, has some fun with Pistachio’s sudden and overweening sense of entitlement, though it perhaps goes a little too far in making her seem petulant and spoiled. More ambiguity about her true status and a more dramatic ending would also have helped. The moral of the story seems to be: “you’re nothing special, so get on with being a decent person.” Given a choice between that and the “you can do it, too!” tone of Any Questions?, most kids will likely choose the latter.