by Cynthia Rylant, Illustrated by Kathryn Brown.
Harcourt Brace & Company, 1996.
My friends Sharie & Marie both mentioned Cynthia Rylant as an author to look out for in Picture Books. So I did. And I was charmed by the idea of The Old Woman Who Named Things.
How does an old woman who has outlived all her friends keep from being lonely? By naming the things in her life she knows she will never outlive. Like her house, Franklin, and her bed, Roxanne. And Bud, the new ceramic pig in her garden. Then a shy brown puppy appears at her front gate. If the old woman is too friendly, the puppy might stay, and she will have to name it. She can’t risk that. So she tells it to go home. But that puppy has other ideas… –jacket copy
The story has an unusual premise among picture books (or any book sitting in the juvenile fiction section). However, this isn’t one of those books to help you or your child understand how life can be for the elderly among us. You could use it that way, but the book truly is for anyone who has experienced lonely and outliving some one or thing you find precious to your own existence. Good friends moving away, or pets, or relatives…any one you have to go on living without and must find some new connection, some new name to learn and know.
The old woman still drives, maintains a lovely garden, and has awesome hair (and even awesomer clear rain cap for it). She is independent and so relationships aren’t about relying on someone for anything other than friendship. And yet, Cynthia Rylant and Kathryn Brown capture the old woman’s vulnerability, revealing the depths of it for the reader as the story progresses. While we can get the reason behind the old woman’s philosophy, but we come to feel its ramifications alongside the old woman. It is a smooth transitioning from ‘of course I will only name things that will out-live me’ to ‘maybe I am denying myself and someone else a meaningful relationship, some joy.’ The old woman decides to take a risk.
Brown’s watercolors are bright with spring hues. The old woman lives a vivid/active life. I mean, she names things and refers to them by name:
She told [the puppy] that Betsy always made puppies sick and Fred never allowed puppies to sit on him and Roxanne wasn’t wide enough for a puppy and an old woman to fit on, and besides all this, Franklin couldn’t tolerate dog hair.
The Old Woman Who Names Things comes off with a lot of charm. The story incorporates the naming which is pretty fun while still remaining poignant enough for effect. The colors, the setting, the old woman, are feminine and yet all a bit wild and rebellious (she lives alone, rural, drives, and has fab cowboy boots). The whimsy, the charm, they alleviate the sorrow in the narrative. And the happy ending doesn’t hurt either. And its an ending where anyone or thing with a name find that they can accommodate a shy brown dog—and anyone unnamed for that matter. Yes, the old woman who named things? we never learn her name. I guess she could be anyone.