By Richa Jha
The reason I bought ‘When You Look Up‘ is because its back cover and jacket carries no blurb. The illustration from the front cover extends to the back and other than the mandatory ISBN details, it’s bare.
That bareness spoke to me in a manner that very few books do. It was waiting to be discovered and unravelled by the reader without an agenda that usually already gets assigned to it by the creators. I find blurbs distracting. Almost as if the book gets defined in the minds of the reader and what they see in the book is channelised in a certain direction through words (mostly, never the author’s) even before they have begun. Can an individual’s reading ever be purely subjective then?
Not knowing what to expect inside When You Look Up, the first couple of spreads left me underwhelmed as the narrative started veering dangerously close to the trite: a mother and her young boy of about ten are moving house — and city — and the boy isn’t interested in anything but his phone. Lorenzo’s is an all too familiar frustration at finding his mobile without signal, and the mother’s predictable enough pontification along the lines of ‘When I was your age…I’d stick my head out the window…and pretend to fly.’
Umm, we’ve played out these words ad nauseam in our heads, in our homes, in our lives, haven’t we? I wasn’t sure if I was up to reading another book on it.
Lorenzo’s equally predictable bored and nonchalant ‘Uh, okay’ response to his mother only further dipped my enthusiasm.
Usually, I read the picture book from cover to cover before buying it (which is also the reason I haven’t bought a single one online. EVER.). But the day I had picked it up along with a bunch of others, I was in a tearing hurry to get someplace else. So, here I was beginning to contend with my disappointment with the book and my own silliness. What was I thinking when buying a book with ‘When You Look Up’ on its cover, anyway? Silly, because at Rs 2000 plus, the post purchase dissonance didn’t exactly come cheap.
But I stayed with the book. Because of the artwork. Because I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Its breath-taking grace and calmness would not let me leave.
So, I read on. Then on. And then on and on. Without a pause, without looking up, without realising how soon the words too had begun hooking me, seducing me, devouring me. Until I got to page no 142 (of 174, yes, it’s a big fat picture book) and stopped.
‘I didn’t want to be rescued, I only wanted to be found.’
There was something about this line that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around.
These words are spoken by Gregorio, a mouse who is willingly ‘floating in a tiny matchbox on the open ocean’ with ‘danger stalking (him) constantly’. This prompts him to write a letter that said:
I don’t know where I am.
There is only the horizon as far as I can see.
Please find me.’
He put that letter ‘into a bottle and threw it into the vast emptiness’ with a SPLASH, and continued to float ‘for what seemed like an eternity, so long (his) whiskers turned white.’
Finally, one day he hears a voice calling (him) from far away.
After confirming that the mouse floating in the matchbox is indeed the same Gregorio whose message he had found, the ‘mysterious voyager generously shared his supplies with (him)’.
Yum, yum, yum, the cake. And the company.
But soon, they said ‘goodbye.’
Wait, what? Couldn’t Gregorio tag along with the mysterious voyager and get back to a safer land where he is no longer alone? Wouldn’t he want to?
I read again.
‘I didn’t want to be rescued, I only wanted to be found.’
The words stared back at me and wouldn’t let me move any further.
I wasn’t sure I’d read them right, so I read again, this time, taking care not to miss a single letter anywhere, just in case I earlier had.
‘I didn’t want to be rescued, I only wanted to be found, so we said goodbye…’
There surely was something in it that was trying to reach me deeper.
I read the line a fourth time, a tenth, then several times over until I suddenly knew why it wasn’t letting me move beyond.
Because in these simple words lay unlocked the most profound wisdom that I needed to make sense of one particularly difficult but precious relationship that had been baffling me for a while in my own personal life.
I knew I needed to write my own letter before moving on to finish reading the book that had just managed to trigger one of the most priceless epiphanies for me.
So, I picked up my mobile and wrote them this:
“The last few times that I’ve spoken with you, I can ‘hear’ your internal struggles. Almost as if they want to get heard aloud but you won’t let them. My natural instinct is to help you heal. I get frustrated because you don’t let me help. But I’ve finally begun to understand that not everyone comes into our lives to get healed or to heal; to be helped out of their vulnerabilities or to help you on that journey; to be saved or to save. I cannot help you or save you because that is not what you seek in me.
But even so, if the thought makes you smile, just always remember that I am there and around, now and forever, as forever that forever can be.”
I pressed ‘send’, hugged When You Look Up close to my body, and cried.
I cried because it had taken me painfully long to realise it. I cried because I was letting go. I cried because I myself would finally begin to heal.
And I cried because what got me my big aha moment with such disarming ease was a picture book. Yes, a picture book (!) so sure and secure in itself to know that it certainly would take every single reader that picks it up on a unique journey of their own. It was as if my entire love for picture books for the last two decades was priming me to absorb the depth of that one simple sentence in that one moment that both consumed me and liberated me.
Feeling lighter a while later, I went back to the book to see what more Gregorio had to say:
‘I didn’t want to be rescued, I only wanted to be found, so we said goodbye and (the mysterious voyager) submerged into the depths once again. Still, I felt in some way as if he had reemerged inside of me.
I closed my eyes, a smile in my heart.’
I, the one reading this, smiled too.
Gregorio the mouse’s story ends at this point, but that’s not where the book ends. And that’s not where it began, either. There are many others in it. This is a profound, powerful, brilliant picture book about stories within stories, stories about stories, stories for stories. It’s a book that takes you to your own hidden depths and urges you to become both a creator and an interpreter. It’s about reaching within and reaching out.
And it’s a book about being an unafraid reader. What I ‘took away’ from it would be very different from what you may see in it. Remember, it is a book without a blurb, right? That’s because it wants to nudge us to be our own intrepid explorer.
And rescuers, too, perhaps. For we do not need others to save us.
Richa Jha, a picture book devourer, reads, writes, publishes, gifts, buys, borrows and hoards them for herself. She believes that there is no better life coach than a picture book created just right. In this monthly column, she’ll share some of personal favourites.
At their best, picture books are powerful meditations on life, its quintessential soul-curry, as I call them. Pick them up- no matter where on the reading spectrum you see yourself – a book novice or an incorrigible bibliophile. They will never let you down.
P.S. – She’s also on a mission of sorts to convert everyone into a picture book devourer. The world needs more of us.