“My cousin Michael was five and I was four when my father went off to war.” It’s the first line of a poignant children’s book capturing the childhood memories of Jane Yolen. Yolen wrote the award-winning children’s book “Owl Moon,” about a child’s late-night stroll through the snow. But she tackles a much more ambitious memory in “All Those Secrets of the World.”
Yolen remembers the family’s trip to the docks to watch her father’s ship sail away. Her father kisses her and hugs the family, and “hundreds of grown-ups crowded around, waving handkerchiefs and crying.” The little girl waves a flag, and hears the tuba in a band playing the song “Over There.” And then her father’s ship is gone, as dirty waves slap the pylons. “[E]veryone had a good time, except Mama, who cried all the way home…”
It’s a very moving story about a family affected by war, told from a child’s simpler viewpoint. And it’s the illustrations that make it seem even more real, with bright watercolors suggesting a sunny childhood day, while the child report’s on the day’s events matter of factly. She goes to the beach with her brother, where they see black specks on the horizon. “Are those birds?” asks the girl. But they’re not. They’re ships, “taking soldiers across the sea to war,” her brother tells her. And the illustration shows their innocence in the moment, with the two children wading at the edge of a vast ocean under white clouds, with the ships just visible on the horizon.
They couldn’t be ships, the girl insists. “Those specks are no bigger than my thumb.” And the brother demonstrates that things look smaller when they’re futher away. “‘Come back, come back,’ I cried, suddenly afraid he’d disappear forever like the ships gone from the horizon, dropped over the edge of the world…” And both children get in trouble, because they weren’t supposed to wade in the ocean.
At the end of the book, the father comes back from the war. “There were no big ships or waving flags, just a stranger in brown with his arm in a sling, unfolding himself from a cab.” The youngest son doesn’t remember the father, and yells, “Go away, you bad man. Don’t you touch my mama.” So the father lifts the little girl, who tells him that “When you are far away, everything is smaller. But now you are here…I am big.”
“‘Of course,’ he said. ‘I knew that.'”
And he kisses and hugs her again, until it all seems familiar again, and war seems like a distant secret that belongs to the outside world.