03 January 2011

Picture Books for Older Readers: Snook Alone

In my continued attempt to keep this blog organized, I thought I would introduce a new segment to feature picture books written for an older audience; let's say for readers from 9 to 99. These are books written for the reader who can appreciate sophisticated vocabulary, a well-turned phrase, and a story complex enough for a chapter book. I'll try to make this a weekly feature, but no promises! I do, however, promise fabulous books.

First up is Snook Alone, written by poet Marilyn Nelson (author of A Wreath for Emmet Till,) and illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering (who also illustrated The Tale of Desperaux.) The story is deceptively simple: Snook is the dog of Abba Jacob, a contemplative monk. When Snook is separated from Abba Jacob during a storm, he has lots of time to investigate the island on which he has been abandoned until his master comes back to fetch him. But that summary is merely the scratch on the surface.

When I first read this book, I was reminded of Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell, mainly because of the survival element. Snook learns how to find water and fish safely (out of the reach of sharks,) tries to defend his bed against a rather fearsome crab, and spends a good deal of time exploring the island and marking trees "which no dog on earth but he had ever marked."  But when I reread Snook, aloud to my daughter, I was reminded of Absent in the Spring by Mary Westmacott (who was actually Agatha Christie trying her hand at psychologically driven character pieces.) Absent in the Spring tells the story of a fairly shallow woman who finds herself isolated for a few days with no company but her own, and nothing to do but think. Which is kind of what happens to Snook. It's interesting that it took reading the book aloud for me to hear the different silences in the story. For that is where the action of the book takes place, in the silent moments, first at the hermitage where Snook and Abba Jacob live, and then on the island, where Snook is left to wait. Nelson describes life at the hermitage as "a striped flag/of silence, work, food, silence, work, food." On the island the silence is initially described as black, empty, and lonely. But eventually, the isolation of the island is a way of communing with Abba Jacob: "Snook sat still enough/to find the shared silence/of Abba Jacob's chapel/under the rhythmic surge of surf."

In an interview with School Library Journal, Nelson talks about Snook Alone and compares longing to prayer. Snook's longing to be reunited with Abba Jacob is evidence of his spiritual growth but written in proportion to the fact that Snook is, in fact, a dog. Nelson masterfully avoids anthropomorphizing the story with such eloquent phrases as, "In the morning /there were only faint sips of his friend's scent/left for Snook to drink in here and there." The realistic illustrations by Ering also go a long way towards keeping the story honest and empathetic without distilling the impact of the text with cutesy pictures. Domineering landscape portraits drive home the point of a tiny dog against the cathedral of sea and sky. But smaller spot illustrations on those same beaches present a more intimate look at Snook and the way his experience is changing him.

When the "good ending" comes (and it does!) it is a well deserved ending for Snook, Abba Jacob, and the reader. For while there is never any evidence of despair on Snook's part, and the separation was not as long as it probably felt to Snook (and no doubt Abba Jacob,) the lessons of silence--compassion, patience, serenity, joy--are best utilized when the period of silence ends.

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