Friday, November 6, 2009

The Little General and The Giant Snowflake

By Matthea Harvey, drawings by Elizabeth Zechel

TinHouse Books, 2009

$10.95, ages 4 and up, 62 pages

A little general tries to rid the world of imaginative thoughts until one day his mind forces him to see a wondrous thing that doesn't exist: a giant glistening snowflake.

In this charming little book about the importance of the imagination, the little general lives atop a hill and spends every waking moment trying to keep order in and around his house.

He grows petunias in a perfect line, counts out every food on his plate, assigns a day to every jacket and each afternoon at 4 o'clock, marshals an army of realists at the base of the hill to do battle against a group of dreamers -- though nothing ever comes of it.

Across the battlefield the Dreamers are so busy twirling around and giggling that they never have time to fight. Some days, half of the Dreamers pretend to be bees. They flit about imagining their comrades are flowers, tickling their armpits to get nectar.

The Realists, however, are always ready to take up arms. Like lemmings on the little general's favorite TV program, "Order in the Wilderness," the Realist army goes along with whatever the little general says, no matter how extreme. Sometimes the little general orders formations that are so complicated that his troops fumble about, unable to make sense of them.

Yet deep inside, some of the Realists find it hard to suppress their imaginations.

Sergeant Samantha, who towers over the little general, is love-struck. She wistfully wishes she was small enough to fit in the little general's house so he would invite her in. And Lieutenant Lyle, who wants nothing more than to sing silly songs, is trying so hard not to sing that he gets in trouble for repeating what other people say.

Then one day, as the little general heads off to do battle, he sees something that is not real: a snowflake three times larger than himself land on his prize bed of roses. Forgetting he doesn't believe in giant snowflakes, he draws his sword and orders it to get off his flowers, only to notice that the snowflake looks rather pretty the way it sparkles.

Appalled by his reaction, he snaps out of his reverie and steps around the snowflake and down the hill for another day of preparing for battle. Today the Dreamers are pretending they have invisible pets and an imaginary monkey bounds over the battle lines and pinches the little general's nose. Of course the little general only scowls, dismissing the empty spot where the monkey would be.

But when the little general gets home, the visions don't end. There in his yard is the snowflake from that morning. He wonders if his mind is deluded by fever, but his forehead isn't hot. Then while eating dinner, he sees the snowflake drift in front of his window. As the moon shines on its points, the snowflake glistens on forks and saucepans in his dish rack.

The little general is so flustered by the fanciful sight that he doesn't act like himself. He forgets to to pick up his dinner plate and brush his teeth, then goes to bed early and does what he normally takes pride in never doing. He dreams. Not just once but three times.

In the first dream, the little general dances around a battalion of lemmings. In the next, he has snowflake wings and flies around the country dropping sugar cubes into lemmings' bowls for tea. And in the last, he dreams he's holding a baby lemming, scratching its ears and calling it "my little Snowflake."

When the little general wakes, he is completely out of sorts and hurries to his bookshelf to find his medical book, a realist's guide to diseases of the imagination. Under "Snowflake, Giant," he discovers he suffers from a rare hallucination, a snowflake that's three times a person's size. No cure exists.

The little general decides he has no choice but to pretend that the giant snowflake isn't actually there. But this proves difficult and by the next day the snowflake is floating an inch above his head on the battlefield.

That evening the little general has another scandalous dream, this time about Sergeant Samantha climbing a rope of lemmings up a tower to save him. By morning, all of his soldiers have come down with little snowflakes over their heads.

For the first time the little general is in tears over what to do. With no rational solution at hand, it''ll take Sergeant Samantha stepping outside the bounds of propriety to cure the hallucinations and suggest a formation to bring peace to the land.

This little book is so quirky and philosophical, you may not know what to make of it at first, but the further you get into it, the more it charms you with its messages: embrace your imagination and you'll find what your heart desires, be open to other ways of looking at the world and the differences between people won't seem as great.

Peter Sis, author and illustrator of The Wall, summed up the book beautifully on its back cover.

Writing to Harvey, he said, "Your book is strange, it is like a dream I remember having as a happy child. The dreams were like worlds to themselves … Sometimes I got scared and wanted to wake up … Sometimes I wanted them to last forever. And your book is such a dream."

No comments:

Post a Comment