By Pablo Neruda
Illustrated by Paloma Valdivia
Translated by Sara Lisa Paulson
There’s a reason kids ask more questions than the rest of us: They haven’t been around that long. Almost everything you see is new. Asking questions is how they make sense of life on earth.
As someone who has spent a considerable amount of time in the company of young children, particularly while raising my own, I have sometimes felt exhausted by the relentless asking of questions. (The classic, delivered from the backseat of a moving vehicle: “Are we there yet?”) In my best moments, I loved my kids’ questions for their innocence and the way they made tired things new again . For a 2-year-old, nothing, not snow or waves, not the taste of a lemon, the hoot of an owl, or the transformation of a hard kernel of popcorn into something that puffs up and is buttered and eaten . It’s the same old, the same old. Children need to find out everything. God help the girl she feels she can’t ask.
Now comes a dedicated illustrated book entirely to questions Better still, the text was written by one of the great poets of the 20th century. For a long time I have studied the words of Pablo Neruda in English and Spanish, sometimes reading them aloud in the original Spanish (even when the meaning of some words eluded me) for the sheer beauty of the sound of the language and for the quality unique to Neruda. of capturing both love and despair, all in the same few lines.
Among the vast body of poems that the Nobel Prize winner left to the world is a book called “Book of Questions.” This work, published only a few months before his death (possibly assassinated by political enemies) in 1973, brings together 74 poems around mysterious, amusing and often metaphysical questions about nature, constellations, memory, numbers, oceans, the inner life of the mind. None of the questions in this book resolve a question of fact. These questions raise other questions. They suggest ideas.
My Dominican daughter-in-law tells me that where she grew up, children knew Neruda’s questions well; she read them at school. Other Latin American friends express a similar familiarity with “Book of Questions”. North Americans? Not so much.
It is good news that Neruda’s interrogative poems (39 of the original 74) have recently been translated into English by Sara Lissa Paulson and presented for the first time in illustrated book form, with stylized, dreamlike illustrations by Chilean artist Paloma Valdivia. side of the page, Spanish on the other. Some of the illustrations unfold to show a vast world of animals, plant life, stars, patterns. For a reader who takes his time, there are discoveries on every page: fossils hidden in rocks, fish underwater, roots underground, milkweed flying through the sky, a young man wearing a cap with a red pom-pom reflected in the water under your rowboat. .
This is a physically beautiful book. Neruda would probably have approved of the way Valdivia has made the world of his dreams come true. (He was a man so enamored with textures, colors, quirky objects, and the ironic juxtapositions of treasures with trash that a home wasn’t enough for him; he created three in his native Chile and filled them to bursting with his possessions. Once I visited his home in Santiago a few years ago, I felt compelled to make a pilgrimage to the other two.)
For me, the theme of this new edition of the “Book of Questions” does not lie in the beautiful illustrations, nor in the text, but in a question that Neruda himself did not ask himself: Who is this book for?
This is complicated. Illustrations and scale (generously oversized) suggest it might be intended for a person sitting on a lap. The text—lyrical, meditative, philosophical—tells me the opposite.
“With what stars do the rivers that have no mouth continue to speak?”
“Where does the rainbow end, in your soul or on the horizon?”
“If we use all the yellow, what will we make bread with?”
They are questions that require, from the reader or the listener, the ability to conjure up abstract concepts. Few very young children have that ability. (They can be very adept at making up nonsense, of course. But I’m not sure that’s what Neruda was after.)
I’m thinking of my oldest granddaughter, a kindergartner who loves little more than a good conversation. But as lively and curious as she is, if she were to ask him (as Neruda asks here): “Is there anything in the world sadder than a stationary train in the rain?” she would be lost. Me, meanwhile, I could sit down and think about it. When I read to my granddaughter, we are unlikely to discuss the possible scarcity of “yellow” or consider our souls. If she were to ask him: “When a prisoner remembers the light, is it the same light that illuminates you?” she would ask for a cookie.
In my experience, young children like the answers to the questions they ask. And they tend to prefer what they can see, touch, smell and hear to abstractions and ideas. (Part of the beauty of Margaret Wise Brown’s classic “Goodnight Moon,” which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, is that the concept of reaching the end of the day and going from waking to sleeping is made understandable by saying goodnight to a series of physical objects: room, moon, comb, brush, bowl full of porridge.)
“Book of Questions” is a wonderful picture book for a child who no longer sees himself as a picture book reader. And for his parents and grandparents.
There are books that an older child could pore over on his own and others that lend themselves better to conversation. “Book of Questions”, completely different but not very different in this respect from Chris Van Allsburg’s brilliant illustrated book “The Mysteries of Harris Burdick”, is one of them. If you’re sharing “Harris Burdick” with a child, talk about what’s going on, make up a story, dig in. With Neruda’s book, a child of the right age (over 8, I’d say, and more likely 10) can find richness and joy in doing the same.
This is what I could do if my granddaughter asked me to read this book with her. Curled up on the couch next to “Quiz Book,” I could ask Celeste to find the four-leaf clover, or the tiny image of a bird encased in a turtle shell. I could read one of the questions to you in Spanish to let the words wash over us both and hear the sounds they make, whether we understand their meaning or not.
“Why do all the silkworms live so ragged?” “Why do silkworms spend their lives dressed in such rags?” Her translation into English might be slightly more understandable to her than the Spanish, but it doesn’t matter. We would be listening to the music of language. And maybe at some point she Celeste she could learn the Spanish word for silkworm, although she would first have to tell her what a silkworm is.
We would study the images a little more. Then we would draw some of ourselves or go out looking for worms. Questions are just the beginning of the experience. It’s where they take you that matters.