Review of the Day: There Is a Flower At the Tip of My Nose Smelling Me
There Is a Flower At the Tip of My Nose Smelling Me by Alice Walker. Illustrations by Stefano Vitale. Harper Collins. $16.99 - Image of the cover forthcoming
I'm a contrary critter. At random moments, never when I can predict their appearance and never when I can guard against them, I will suddenly be beset by a case of the contraries. The very first time I laid eyes on an ad for Alice Walker's, "There Is a Flower At the Tip of My Nose Smelling Me", the contraries hit me full-force. Alice Walker's trying her hand at another children's book, eh? I was unimpressed. Oh sure, it looked cool. So do Madonna's books for that matter. It means nothing. So for months and months and months I refused to read the book. There's no explanation for it. I was simply being petulant. Sight unseen I'd made up my mind that I wasn't interested and that, ladies and gentlemen, was that. Such an attitude might suit a hermit living in a cave somewhere, but it is hardly befitting of a children's librarian. It was hard for me to ignore the fact that slowly the roar surrounding Walker's book has grown louder. It's on one best book of the year list.. no, two! No, three! I couldn't stand idly by and let this happen. If I was going to dislike this book, I was at least going to give myself a reason. So I picked it up and read it cover to cover and wouldn't you know it? It's not bad. Not bad at all. Certainly finding the right illustrator was key to the book's success, but nobody can say that Walker hasn't found a topic appealing to child-reader set. It's admittedly not the kind of poem I'd immediately gravitate towards, but I'd be lying to you if I said the book wasn't oddly beautiful. Not a first choice, but certainly a worthy one.
A young girl, her face visible only in the lower right-hand corner of the page, sniffs a pale pink bloom. Says the text, "There is a flower at the tip of my nose smelling me." Turn the page and now the girl is embedded within a deep black/blue/purple sky. Here eyes are the clouds that float before her face, stars dotted everywhere. "There is a sky at the end of my eye seeing me." Working with this inside-out look at the world, the girl goes on to discover rain, dances, oceans, and finally, "There is a story at the end of my arms telling me!"
In her "Note from the Author" at the end of the book, Ms. Walker explains how the inspiration for this poem came to her. Basically, she was walking in a forest near her house and "the wonder of myself as part of all this overcame me. I began to sing: 'I come out of You, my Love. I come out of You!' ". She later remarks that, "I wrote this book, which was not a book then, but a thank you note." It wouldn't be too much of a stretch then to interpret this book as a religious meditation on God's wonders. On the other hand, it would be equally easy to see this as an example of personal empowerment. After all, the book is all about me me me. I guess that in addition to creating a book where kids can bend their minds around statements like, "There is a pen nestled in my hand writing me", Ms. Walker leaves its spiritual significance wide open. The bookflap of this title describes the poem as a, "gently provocative text", which seems like wishful thinking on the publisher's part. Still, there's is definitely an allure here that's hard to pin down.
It's a pity that the book doesn't happen to mention how illustrator Stefano Vitale created the art. From what I can tell it may have involved painting directly onto a wooden canvas, but that's just guesswork. Certainly Walker's poem is quite nice. Kid-friendly and simple, but with just the right hint of something deeper involved. Still, it's not hard to imagine what could have happened had her words been paired with a less than stellar artist. Some might have taken her story and filled it with pastel puppy dogs, bubbles, and butterflies. Someone else might have gone the opposite direction and gone all mod on us. Maybe this would have been all adult-centered three-toned shades of brown and the occasional representational object for kicks affair. Vitale's strength with this book is that he's willing to make his work both child-friendly AND easy on the eyes. His images jump close to his subject matter, as with the picture of a sunrise where we can make out a quarter of the girl's face, prominent and striking, on almost half a page. Mr. Vitale is currently a resident of Venice, and perhaps his attachment to that particular city is at work in this book. The girl's masklike (though by no means unemotional) face, the colors, the sinuous use of line, etc. all give the book a distinctly European air. Or maybe I'm just saying that because I know where Mr. Vitale currently makes his home. Dunno. All I can say for sure is that if Mr. Vitale were to turn his image of the girl blending in with the indigo-hued night sky into a poster, he'd be set for life.
I'm a sucker for simplified openings. For example, you pick up this book and you open the front cover. The endpapers are just a shaded rainbow spectrum, continuous and unblemished. You turn the page. Here too is the image we saw on the cover on our left. Below it are two small dedications. On the right is the title page. After that the story starts, and all the remaining publication info is squeezed into the back of the book. There's nothing like a little good design to help a title of this type along.
It's still not my favorite book of the year, but that can't really be attributed to anything but personal preference. Alice Walker's latest hits all the right notes and is a thoughtful piece as well. Worth your time and consideration.