Picture book of the day: the masterpiece I Talk Like a River takes the reader inside a child’s mind

I Talk Like a River, illustrated by Sydney Smith, written by Jordan Scott, published by Neal Porter Books (an imprint of Holiday House), ISBN: 978-0823445592.

Some of the very best picture books employ art to reflect what is happening inside a character’s mind. Their emotions, feelings, inner-struggles. As a result, the reader steps inside the protagonist’s head and sees the world from their point-of-view. The poignant I Talk Like a River emerges as a potent example of this thanks to Sydney Smith’s rich, evocative watercolor, ink, and gouache illustrations. His work perfectly captures the moods and nuances of Jordan Scott’s dynamic highly personal text.

This incredibly moving title introduces a boy who struggles with the words that surround him. The “p” in the word “pine” “grows roots” inside his mouth, and the “c” in the word “crow” sticks in the back of his throat. Stuttering has made going to school a challenge, especially when the teacher asks for him to speak in front of the class. After a rough day at school, the kid’s loving father calms him by taking him to the river and having him identify with the glorious bubbling, whirling sounds this majestic body of water makes.

In an afterword, Scott reveals that he based this account on his own real-life experiences. His poetic first person narration adds an emotional immediacy to the account, and puts the reader in the boy’s shoes. Lines such as “All they hear is how I don’t talk like them/All they see is how strange my face looks and that I can’t hide how scared I am” pack a real visceral punch. The reader follows him as he struggles with fear and frustration and then to moments of much-needed relaxation as he realizes his father is right–he is like the river.

Throughout the award-winning illustrator Sydney Smith creates images that build on Scott’s words. When the boy looks out the window at the pine tree and the crow, words that trip up his tongue, they appear blurry. On the next page, Smith serves up one of his amazing window shots (he is a master at showing objects reflected in windows). The boy’s face, pine tree, and the bird are superimposed and (thanks to the borders of a window frame) fragmented. A scene inside the classroom offers a rather chilling view from the boy’s POV. He sits in the back of the class and we see the back of the classmates’ heads. When the teacher asks him a question, they all turn and face him. Their faces are feature-less, distorted, and the image becomes larger, the moment becomes magnified. It’s an unsettling abstract painting. Smith then places the reader head-on in front of the boy’s face. His eyes are wide open, his mouth closed tight. In a surreal touch, the outlines of the crow and pine tree branches flow across the page. When the boy goes to speak, Smith conveys the intensity of the moment by breaking the page into 16 squares. Each square contains an obscured profile view of him as he struggles.

Smith keeps topping himself in this book. The climactic scenes at the river feel transcendent as the caring father soothes him with loving words. Calming images of the water and landscape, the dad’s arm around the child’s shoulders. Smith does not make everything suddenly rosy and overly colorful. The images are still subdued. He keeps things real.

The book’s most breathtaking moment arrives in the form of a fold-out. There is a double-page spread of the boy’s face. He looks pensive and relaxed, listening to the river. The reader then opens the pages to reveal a stunning, beautiful panoramic, cinemascope shot of him standing in the river, its waves shimmering and reflecting the sun. This might be the greatest “wow” moment in a 2020 picture book, a result of terrific art direction.

I Talk Like a RiverĀ is quite simply a masterpiece. Personal picture book making at its very best. An example of the right text meeting the right artist at the right time.