The ladybug thought,
If only I were an ant.
Then I’d be strong and tough.
The ant thought,
If only I were a snail.
Then I wouldn’t be this busy.
This luminous picture book, originally published in the Netherlands under the title Was ik maar …, brilliantly explores the personal – and universal – conundrum of wanting what you don’t have and yearning to be someone else.
Playing outside, a child looks up in the sky and sees a bevy of beautiful butterflies fluttering by. With feet firmly planted on the ground, the child fancies, “If only I were a butterfly. Then I could fly everywhere.” On the following page, the brightly hued, hard-to-miss butterfly has dreams of their own and wishes they had the stick insect’s unobtrusive anonymity. In turn, the stick insect, who is not a good swimmer, yearns to effortlessly swirl across the water like a whirligig beetle.
One by one, backyard insects state the traits, characteristics and abilities they admire in others. They also express reasons for their own longings. The short sentences have a poetic precision, and the emotions conveyed are very relatable: “The whirligig beetle thought, If only I were a firefly. Then I’d never be scared of the dark.” The firefly’s desire to be a bee in a colony comes from feelings of loneliness. But being a part of a huge collective is what drives the bee to want to be a self-sufficient spider.
Nature comes alive in Mies Van Hout’s dazzling collage illustrations that are rich in colour and details. Flowers have textured, patterned designs and seem to be in motion. The park-like setting is a clever landscape to explore the “grass isn’t always greener on the other side” adage.
This circular tale comes to a satisfying and thoughtful ending when a dragonfly wants to be a child, explaining, “Then I could run, jump, laugh, play hide-and-seek, count, build houses … and so much more!” Instead of concentrating on what others have, the final spread shows a diverse group of children celebrating their own unique abilities. The grass just might be the greenest where you water it.
A glossary of insects is included in back matter, offering a close-up image of each creature, along with a brief factual sentence, like “Grasshoppers use their big back legs like catapults to launch themselves into the air.” Instructions on how to make collage art like Mies Van Hout are also offered. The key step is “Have fun!”
If Only … will spark reflection and an appreciation of differences.
Linda Ludke is a librarian in London, Ontario.