The Greening of an Old Tale

In 1841, John Ruskin, eminent English art critic and social thinker, wrote a children’s book for a twelve year old girl, Euphemia (Effie) Gray, who would later become his wife, staying married to him for some six years and disrupting his life considerably in the process. From such unpropitious beginnings, remarkably, Ruskin’s only children’s story has survived.

King_Golden_River_PLC_CC2018.inddSet in a “valley of the most surprising and luxuriant fertility,” The King of the Golden River is the story of 11-year-old Gluck, a kindhearted underdog whose two wily older siblings, Hans and Schwartz, work him to the bone, withhold food, and subject him to incessant cuffs and punches. When Southwest Wind, Esquire, pays Gluck an unexpected and, it must be said, inconvenient visit, Gluck nonetheless feeds him and puts up with him, unwittingly acquiring a powerful ally.

Gold and greed figure in the story, as does a king entrapped by magic, the promise of transformation through three drops of holy water cast into a river, and more.

The twists and turns of story lead to a happy ending for Gluck, with rewards given for kindness and generosity and punishment duly meted out for cruelty and selfishness. At a deeper level, this is a fable about how humans treat the earth. (“They killed everything that did not pay for its eating.”) It links social and environmental justice in quirky and astonishingly modern ways. The one note that rang false to me in today’s social context was the unthinking equation of black with evil in the naming of the ill-fated wicked brothers.

Still, it is just possible that the passage of time, since Ruskin’s penning of this tale, allows us tap some of its essential truths in new and powerful ways.

“Water is another matter”

Pablo Neruda wrote, relative to the “bristling” earth:

Water is another matter,
has no direction but its own bright grace,
runs through all imaginable colors,
takes limpid lessons
from stone,

MonsoonI’m feeling drawn to thinking about water today. It’s the same sort of impulse that led me to write Monsoon, my very first picture book, which was published all of fourteen years ago. It seems more imperative now.

Maybe it’s just that in the time that’s passed, water has become ever more precious, an ever more fragile resource. Look at what they’re finding out about the delicate dance of ocean currents in maintaining the planet’s temperature.

Annapurna trek.JPGMaybe I’m missing the ice-cold waterfall I walked through, barefoot, three years ago in Nepal.

Whatever the reason, I find myself pulling this book down from my shelf: All the Water in the World by George Ella Lyon, illustrated by Katherine Tillotson.

Start with the jacket, with the small fish leaping in one corner, the tumultuous wash of blue and the swoop of the title and byline into the book’s interior.

all the waterThe title page takes this further. The fish have wings. The waves take on a purple hue.

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Still, it’s pretty straightforward. But turn the page and this is what you see:

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There it is.

All the water in the world is all the water in the world.

Simple. Elegant. And in the light of the slowing currents, deeply true. There’s more. I can’t quote the text without showing the images, and I don’t want to spoil the effect of the page turn. But between the art and the words, this book delivers its message with power and grace.

And now I think again about that waterfall. How I walked gasping through it. How it made me feel, for the next few hours, as if I were walking on clouds. How such things are gifts to us from the universe.

There are quite a few books for young readers now that address environmental issues including climate change, but it’s rare to find one that drives home the interconnectedness of living things with the systems and forces that keep the planet capable of sustaining life. Maybe we should be sending copies to policymakers in the United States.