When Emily Was Small
When Emily Was Small
Soloy's picture book is a vibrant salute to seeing and experiencing nature for all its joy, mystery, and magic, as well as to the joys of a child's imaginative play. The story has a clear home-away-home structure, but it bounds out of its constraints with the wild and curious spirit of childhood and the observant, loving gaze of a budding artist of the world around her.
Young Emily Carr, her dark hair piled up to a triangular point on her head and her expression full of mischief and glee, is allowed to explore in the civilized patches of the garden near her home. Her mother asks her to abide by the rules and stay clean and starched white, but soon Emily is drawn to the margins of the space, where "garden scraps were dumped." "Hello, wild place," Emily says to the world around her. The wild place answers her with a "sweet pink smell", inviting her to explore further. She sits listening to the sounds of the cow, the distant waves crashing against the shore, and she is filled with a sort of peace. The silence that fills her then becomes filled with a Presence. "Thumpety, Bumpety," it goes, and the "Wild" suddenly embodies itself as a toothy wolf-like guide. "Hello Small. There is so much to show you!" And away they go on further adventures.
The Wild helps Emily appreciate the many hues of green all around her, the way shadow plays with light, the way "blossoms [fizz] with glee." "You are Bigger than you know," says Wild, and he and Emily fly high, high into the sky, where everything "hummed and thrummed with life". Here, Emily grasps something even more than just the wonders she's witnessed, just out of range, "like a picture that suddenly shifts into something else", but, before she can grab hold of it, the everyday world pulls her back to humdrum existence. Her mother lectures her for she is covered in dirt, and the Wild vanishes.
Emily no longer feels like she just did, big with the possibility of life, as she "shrink[s] back down to become small once more." But the Wild leaves her a gift at parting – a butterfly's wings dancing to the rhythm of its own heart.
That central mystery of life, so close she could almost reach it, is something that Carr and all visionaries reach out for all the time in their art, that way of seeing and being that invites the world to show its wonder and imbue us with its magical presence, soft as the heartbeat of a butterfly. Soloy's art also perfectly matches the simple-but-sophisticated text, with clean dark outlines, vibrant hues of the Pacific Northwest, and a more abstract representation of nature rather than a photorealistic one, that captures the ineffable spirit of what Emily almost grasps.
Based on the journal entries of Emily Carr describing a childhood memory, Soloy's When Emily Was Small is a satisfying, challenging, beautiful picture book that deserves to be shared with young readers and the young at heart. Be prepared to see the Wild in the world around you after experiencing it, in things as subtle as the way light plays with shadow or in the beat of a butterfly's wing.
Ellen Wu is a collections services librarian with a focus on juvenile and young adult materials at Surrey Libraries in British Columbia.