Atheneum, 2020 Hardcover Picture books, 40 pp.
The book opens with a quiet (read textless) sequence before we arrive at the title page. This unusual extended approach adds a marvelous weight the context of the story. (1) She clings to the baluster of the porch while he extends a hand; her pig tails drooping. (2) Her hand along with its body extends backward, suggesting the wave good bye is as hesitant as that raised footstep forward. Maybe she’s not waving at all. Note all the bird feeders & houses, and how the figures broaden the distance by occupying opposite edges of the spread. (3) They stand still and facing the wrong way for traffic on the busy sidewalk forcing passersby to walk around; you can practically hear and smell the activity. Her eyes…his; their hands. (4) And they arrive and reading the entrance sign (which we will register and keep in mind), we experience that collective nod of understanding. (5) Cue dedication and title page double spread, geese taking flight as blue silhouettes. We are there with her, standing behind her instead of the brick wall we see elsewhere. Her anxiety and reluctance are our own; so is her contemplation of those birds and that title: When You Need Wings. We are ready now for what encouragement the author/illustrator has to offer.
What Judge has to offer is permission (“if you need to today”) to remind yourself of an inner strength, of an internal landscape; a place we can go to “to find treasures / that live inside your mind.” The sign, the gate/threshold, becomes a metaphor even as the playground becomes somewhere else—the woods—and its occupants become less terrifying a creature. A reader with an eye and memory for detail will begin to suspect what the artist will later confirm. In the meanwhile, we delight in the beauty of the artwork, the fun and imagination the antics and their expressions inspire. Watch our protagonists posture shift, and her size on the page enlarge. She takes up more room.
After she listens and realizes, she arrives in a new place; a place with which she is finally ready to interact. She has seen what it can be, has envisioned it. She’s ready. She has wings. She is ready to fly. This time to use them not to fly away, to disappear, but to interact, to fly alongside with the outside world, with another.
I would recommend this book based on images alone. But the words and its message intrigues me. I rarely (if I’ve ever) come across a picture book that gives the hesitant, fearful child permission for a guilt-free retreat. And the treasure to find isn’t necessarily courage; the world is plural anyway: “treasures.” The only reference to “brave” is in the hearts of friends—“bravehearted friends”—because they will perhaps need to bravery to “go a little wild / and even to roar!” The girl doesn’t need to be brave to do those things; she’s the one instigating those things in the story.
What the creator is telling the girl (and the reader/listener) is that there are things that can be Known, and only to that individual, wings that “can’t be seen by others, but you can hear them and feel them / and use them…” You just have to “listen closely;” which will mean taking a moment. Like the girl who moves to stand near the wall, away from the children eager to engage her and “LOUD” with it. Even if no one else is listening (adults with their phones out…), she needs to listen. She needs a moment to realize her wings, find her treasures. It’s a moment visually that nearly mimics the cover. It’s a moment that gives her the strength and desire she needs engage with world outside of her.
Kudos to the storyteller for wanting us to linger longer in the interior world of our protagonist. The little houses and creatures. The animals that come to play—that tiger!! the koala with glasses… It’s a lovely place full of life, full of joy—aspects/emotions Judge carries seamlessly into the outside world at the close of the book. What a journey. The girl is going to be okay, of course she is, she’s all ready to soar.
Lita Judge is the award-winning author and illustrator of many children’s books, including When You Need Wings; Flight School; Penguin Flies Home; Red Sled; Red Hat; Good Morning to Me!; Born in the Wild; and her illustrated young adult novel, Mary’s Monster. She lives with her husband, two cats, and a parrot in New Hampshire.