Friday, December 21, 2012

Holiday Gift Idea #8: Wings to Fly

Bartholomew Biddle and the Very Big Wind, by Gary Ross, illustrated by Matthew Myers, Candlewick, $17.99, ages 6 and up, 96 pages, 2012.

A boy flies away from home to escape his ordinary life, only to discover that he misses his parents, his tasks and routines.

In this exhilarating poem by film director Gary Ross, Bartholomew Biddle straps on a bedsheet and soars out of his window at night to see what the world has to offer.

"'Why, that looks like fun! / Just look at those trees! They're bending in half -- yeah, that's quite a breeze,'" he says, as a wind blows in to carry him away.

In bare feet and pajamas, Bart paraglides out over houses and cars, and fancies himself the "World's Best Bedsheet flier."

"'Wow, this isn't bad!' / he said, swooping and soaring, / buzzing the rooftops while / people were snoring."

Bart climbs higher and "levels 'er off," then decides he's ready to go somewhere. In the next chapter, Bartholomew wakes up cradled in his sheet between limbs of a banana tree.

Looking down, he realizes he's on a tropical island and sees a band of pirates as merry as can be. In no time, they invite him down to dig up gold and feast on mango pie. It's paradise. And yet it's almost too perfect even for pirates.

One day, Bart hears crying and learns that the pirate's captain is homesick for the sea. The captain misses being surprised by life and not having things work out perfectly right: "Fun isn't fun fun / when it's all that you know."

Bart realizes he misses those things too, and tells the pirates he's "gotta be going" and sets off in search of home. "'Cause tough as it was / to admit to himself / he missed his old room / and the toys on his shelf."

"And even his mom / at a quarter to eight: 'C'mon sleepyhead -- you're one hour late!"

As Bart takes flight again, the wind ripples through his pajamas, now tattered at the cuffs like those of a pirate's slops -- reflecting the adventuring he's already done.

But wind, like life, is uncertain and as Bartholomew coasts for home, he finds himself plummeting down into more peculiar places: where people never leave because they're afraid to or they feel stuck.

Each landing comes abruptly, while Bartholomew is reflecting on things he misses back home, and is also serendipitous: while stranded in these places, Bart learns what it means to really live.

First, the wind peters out over a sad little town where men head off to work with their eyes toward the ground. While Bartholomew loses altitude, he wonders if his dad is like these men, shuffling off to work in a daze.

"Each morning and night / he'd pass through that door, / but what comes in the middle? There's got to be more..."

Then Bartholomew remembers a glistening day, when he and his dad lay on the floor with 500 shades of crayons, marveling at all of the possibilities life has to offer.

"You're young, and the future / is yours to be plucked," his dad said that day.

But then Bart clips a tree and is startled back to reality. He falls into a mucky pond by an austere-looking boarding school, where students have so many rules, they can hardly keep track.

"No running, no jumping, / no chewing of gum, / No teasing, no sneezing, / no crying for your mum."

But then Bart befriends one of the students, Densy, who longs to explore too and Bart asks him to fly away with him. Though Densy longs to do so, he's afraid to break the rules and at the last minute, chooses to stay.

Reluctantly, Bart leaves his new friend behind and soars up until Densy is just a dot on the ground. Soon, Bart is lost in a cloud that leads to a storm and then he's pitched back to the ground.

With rain pelting down and his sheet tearing, Bart plummets into a canyon where all sorts of explorers and risk-takers are stranded. Among them an aviator "Amelia", a balloonist, windsurfers, a Swiss mountaineer and pioneers.

The canyon is enclosed by sheer cliffs and everyone has assumed there's no way out. "They sit and they stare / at nothing at all," having lost the spirit of adventure that got them there.

Will Bart lose his ambition too? Or will a friend new to all this adventuring take a chance, and come and try to save him?

Ross' debut into children's writing is wondrous and though the poem is epic (for a picture book), it has an easy cadence that keeps readers bounding along to the end.

The message for children is simple and wise, and reminiscent of something Dr. Seuss would write: 

Life's for living -- seize the moment, break free. But then come home -- check in, learn the things you need to know before setting off again.

I read this to my eight-year-old son and knew almost instantly we'd read straight to the end. It was his punctuated laugh and beaming face that cued me in, as he reacted to the line, "He'd turned from a ten-year-old / to a small plane."

It took almost an hour to read the book and though my voice got a little craggy, we didn't want to stop till the end. When the last page did come, we felt as if we could float off to bed.

Myers' paintings are exhilarating, particularly those of Bart in flight, and have whimsical touches that float about the page. When Bart learns how explorers blew into the canyon, Myers scatters humorous images of them between poem columns.

The edges of the pages become the walls of the cavern as characters tumble down: On one side, a tornado whirls down with a flag at the top, representing a golfer who got swept away, and below that a man falls clutching the arm of a giant clock to represent being in the right place at the "wrong time."

Not all of the pages are illustrated, but after awhile it didn't matter. By the end of the poem, I realized we'd already filled in all of the blanks with our imaginations.

This is a joyful read for any child who wishes they could lift off and fly.

Of course, we don't want children experimenting with flight. (A cautionary note appears at the beginning of the story.) But wouldn't it be great to see them in the backyard on a windy day, running around with a sheet at their backs?

Ross is the director of many acclaimed films, including The Tale of Despereaux, Pleasantville, and The Hunger Games.

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