Children’s books! Where would I be without the books that I read as a child? Statistics say: Married, probably, to some NICE, mild-mannered upper middle-class man with a degree from one of the three decent universities in Manila, raising a couple of materialistic, video-game-junkie kids, in the f***in’ suburbs (any country will do, suburbs are all the same), taking some big pink pill nightly to numb my mind and escape from the whole thing.
Good thing I fell deeply, madly, feverishly in love with Jane Yolen’s Girl Who Loved The Wind early on (I was about 5 or 6). When the Wind came over the garden wall and into Danina’s perfectly manicured, prison-like palace, singing a haunting tune about a world that was “sometimes happy, sometimes sad….but different each day,” I swooned.
Everything about this book—the Persian miniatures by Ed Young, the hints at exotic places and faraway travel, even the worldly lover that you don’t completely know but somehow trust—stimulated my Aquarian love for change and difference…like no other book of my childhood had, or ever did again (okay, the original Madeline, with illustrations by Ludwig Bemelmans, came close). I wanted so badly to be this Danina, to have the wind sing to me about the world, and invite me to run away with him…
Obviously, little girls were meant to identify with Danina, and I did, of course, to a certain extent—but I found her a bit wishy-washy, and gutless, so the real relationship I had to Danina was as a rival: I knew that I would have been more worthy of an invitation from the Wind. Ultimately, it made me jealous when the wind took her, and left me behind—standing, as it were, on the cold beach, with her deranged father and the servants. What can I say? I felt bereft, over and over again (because I read that book hundreds of times.)
The book would not, I think, have been the major influence on me that it was, if it hadn’t been for Young’s illustrations. Yes, they were exotic, and pretty, and colorful, and all that…but that’s not where their real magic lay, which was created (for me, anyway) by the fact that they only ever hinted at things…Young never spelled out the story’s text, never loaded a thousand extraneous details into his pictures. What he left out of his pictures, the imagination of a spellbound child supplied all the more powerfully: filling the rooms of Danina’s palace, giving a face to the Wind and a melody to his haunting song, putting an overabundance of fruits on the trees and flowers in the hedges, and—most touchingly—populating that “vast and ever-changing world” beyond the palace walls with ideas of happy and sad that changed with each reading, as the child’s experience of the world changed, and which Young wisely refrains from depicting…offering only a low border of Hiroshige-like waves, and a pink-and-gold horizon into which a child can see, and dream, and see, forever.
I love the fact that the book does not end “happily”…one might say it doesn’t end, at all, but rather that it begins. There are no culturally prescribed images of what a girl should aim for or try to be when she grows up, none of those “and then she met a man (all her needs were fulfilled,) and they lived happily ever after” blinkered, garden-variety futures. To me this story said “Shun ignorance, even it means the loss of security, or of comfort. Don’t seek happiness, seek meaning, change and growth. Leap into the arms of the unknown, and keep your eyes open on the journey.”
Well, okay, I wasn’t so precocious!…but that’s what I believe the story said to me, as I look back at my child Self—growing up in family-picnics-on-the-mowed-lawn Suburbia— from where I am now, at 35, many thousands of miles from my parents’ home and a few adventures later, married to a Russian sailor with eyes the color of the wind on the sea.