Michael Bedard shows us that the creations of art contain all the mystery and wonder of emerging life in Spring. He creates an imaginary meeting between his narrator, a little girl, and Emily Dickinson, the American poetess. Through the discoveries of the little girl, he quietly reveals the theme to the reader. As his story progresses, his prose turns more poetic and profound than one might expect in a children’s book.
First, Bedard draws the young reader to wonder about the mysterious recluse across the street, locally known as “the Myth”. We learn that an envelope, that “whispered to the floor” from the mail slot, asks Mother to visit the Myth to play piano. The envelope is accompanied by a sprig of pressed bluebells. Dead flowers as a hint of life.
Sure enough, Bedard moves us to Father’s sun-room. There, among the flowering potted bulbs, the little girl expresses curiosity about the Myth, while her mother’s music fills the house. Father tells his daughter that the Myth writes poetry, a word he is asked to explain. In a marvelous integration of life with art, her father speaks of the mysterious and special ‘life’ in music and poetry. He tells her,
“…sometimes magic happens and it seems the music starts to breathe. It sends a shiver through you. …it’s a mystery. Well, when words do that, we call it poetry.“
Later she places some cracked and dry lily bulbs –with their mysterious capacity to come to life– onto the windowsill, to warm and sprout them.
When she and her mother finally visit “the Myth”, we learn she is Emily. But Emily hides upstairs, as closed to the world as the un-sprouted lily bulbs. In yet another marvelous integration, when the little girl slips upstairs to offer Emily two lily bulbs as a gift, Emily blossoms, offering the girl a lovely poem.
Bedard shows us that one has not lived if one has not appreciated the parallel marvels of emerging life and artistic creativity.
Again and again, Bedard’s prose moves smoothly between the practical and the poetic: it’s Spring,
“Father stood and watched us from the door. Our feet rang on the wooden walk. The road was full of mud and mirrors where the sky peeked at itself. The yellow house slipped down behind the hedge as we came near.”
The melancholy gray illustrations capture the life of a recluse, and the stiff people, with period furniture and clothing, strongly reflect a modern view of life in the mid 19th century. Unfortunately, the mood they create, though interesting to adults, will not appeal much to children. In some respects the illustrations contradict the beautiful message of the story. With such beauty in the world, why be gray and melancholy?
The poem that Emily gives the little girl is obviously carefully chosen by Bedard. It makes a marvelous and radical statement against the medieval and orthodox religious view of how life on Earth should be spent. Rather than living an ascetic life, eschewing the beauty of this world, Dickinson asks in four succinct lines, how one can appreciate Heaven if one cannot appreciate God’s Earth:
“Who has not found the Heaven –below–
Will fail of it above–
For Angels rent the House next ours,
Wherever we remove.”
This is an invaluable position for children, who have a lifetime on Earth ahead of them.
That said, one might ask if Bedard’s Emily is written with a deeper religious intention. Emily simultaneously builds our focus on the mysteriousness of artistic creativity along with our focus on the emerging Life hidden in plants and in Spring. When we finally reach Dickinson’s poem, is Bedard directing us to see God as the ultimate Creator and ultimate Mystery?
Perhaps children would appreciate their World, the real world, more if grown ups did not portray it as dull, by comparing it with brilliant but imaginary utopias that can only be reached in death. Is the wonder of life made more remarkable when attributed to unexplained powers and Beings? Surely, the marvelous nature of life and creativity are values worthy of our greatest appreciation, values that need not be diminished by comparisons to, or justifications from, Heaven, Shangri-la, Asgaard, Nirvana, Elysium, etc., All such afterlife ideals focus on death, rather than the love-of-life to which Bedard’s Emily seems to speak.
This thought provoking story deserves to be on a child’s bookshelf, to be pulled out and read every other year, until one day a young adult grasps the beauty in the writing and in the message, and longs to show it to another child.